Reading Steve Ditko’s The Safest Place in the World
by Travis Hedge Coke
The Safest Place in the World. A simple comic about military information being secreted out of a dictatorship, and the resultant and contiguous deaths and imprisonments along the way. A straight shot. The ethics are laid out. The characters are clear. The politics, the anxieties, the dangers are articulated.
Steve Ditko. We know what we’re getting. There is only one Steve Ditko and one of the clearest voices in long form comics.
Most often thought of as an artist and less a writer, thanks to emotional attachment to his early 1960s superhero work, mostly Amazing Spider-Man, Steve Ditko was a fantastic plotter and also excelled at dialogue. The verbal exchanges in The Safest Place in the World, a mid-90s comic, inspired a faith in me that I would love his Spider-Man, had he also done all of the dialogue. He is one of the great all ends American comics authors.
So, what is it to read and to love a comic like The Safest Place in the World, and to not agree with what is presented, to not accept the chains of logic as they are linked? To be fascinated, entrenched in a Ditko comic until causal ethics and social logic become complex jumbles?
“Crediting Ditko simply as a brilliant cartoonist is not giving him enough credit, nor is just describing him as a powerful storyteller.”
– Frank Miller in The New Comics, ed. Gary Groth
What is it to enter Ditko’s paranoid, anxious, fearful, amazing worlds, to feel them so intrinsically, to feel embedded in them and enlivened by them, but to believe them to be less reflections of the extant world, and mostly projections of internal concerns specific to, and irrational even within, Steve Ditko?
Ditko is fond of those objectivist truisms, a is a, 2 + 2 = 2 + 2, and my primary, traditional angle into his comics is a truism of its own. I won’t deal with Ditko as irrationally anti-corporate or anti-capitalist; he wasn’t. I can’t pretend that Steve Ditko was a hermit, as we know he received guests, had friends, socialized with family.
Steve Ditko the bigot… and I am buffeted by phantoms of Asian-coded Dr Strange, the fine art in Blue Beetle, the adopted family/liberation metaphors in The Man Who Stepped Out of a Cloud. How overwhelmingly biased and insidious the false tenets of objectivism are and the coded wars against nonwhite people, homosexuals, while publicly offering a hollow support.
Steve Ditko comics remind me to invest, but to invest cautiously. To stay aware.
His make me feel clear, unjust, clockwork worlds. But they make me most feel, fear, and deal with the Steve Ditko in my mind.
The equation is not Steve Ditko = Steve Ditko comic. Steve Ditko = Steve Ditko panel. Steve Ditko line.
There are eyes in comics and then there are Steve Ditko eyes. We know a Ditko face. We know a Ditko line. Draw line or written.
Steve Ditko was a genius. That doesn’t mean that he was always right, that he always understood everything clearly. The application of genius is not by essence good. Ditko’s genius lies in that he can manipulate us, at least for several pages.
The Safest Place in the World is a powerhouse comics. Remarkable in its spacing. Heart clenching in its tension. The Safest Place in the World is brutal and kind, alien and familiar.
We can lay down the basic ground: A couple pages longer than a standard comic book, this 1993 one shot, drawing written by Steve Ditko, is colored by Rochelle Menashe and Ditko. It was originally published by Dark Horse Comics, and is currently available, black and white, in the Avenging World anthology published directly by Ditko and Robin Snyder. At its short length, The Safest Place reads so densely, so packed with feeling, that while its taut anxious plot helps it read quickly, the comic feels magnitudes greater in page count.
Ditko was a long time objectivist, strongly influenced by Ayn Rand, and the truth of that will always complexify my relationship to his work, piquing my interest when I disagree with his causal and political conclusions, and you driving me to question my conclusions when he, I, or the story’s mouthpiece agree.
This may be a childish reaction on my part, but it is firmly situated. I read against Ditko as much as I read Ditko.
Steve Ditko, I suspect, did not care whether I agreed, whether any reader agreed. He was overmuch his own man, a trait that sometimes found him maligned by superhero fans a little too wedded to particular publishers or their trademarks. As an objectivist, I suspect he felt he was presenting us information more than propagandizing, even while making, really, propaganda.
“He explains his thinking in such detail that. He leaves himself open to endless attack.”
– Frank Miller in The New Comics, ed. Gary Groth
A master at presenting anxiety, Ditko could make us feel threatened, nervous, he could fray our nerves and drive us to great sympathy for anyone he wanted.
That Ditko could sell us callous, unforgiving stories as remotely empathetic, as ethically bolstered at all, is a testament to his genius.
The physical violence of The Safest Place in the World is unrelentingly visceral. As greatly, as truly as Ditko can demonstrate a bird’s gentle freedom, the open sky, the tended nest, he also powerfully, earnestly shows us bruises and fear. They are a freedom and brutality within Steve Ditko. They are a freedom and a brutality in me.
Reading Steve Ditko
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