Phase Three is where the series becomes mostly multi-paneled stories and begins behaving in a distinctly superhero comic book-like manner. The first issue of this phase, Ditko Presents (#6), debuts three brand-new super-characters -- two heroes and a villain -- one of which then headlines each succeeding issue, with numerous additional stories included (some of which are serialized across several issues). Each of the “main” characters' stories are period pieces, taking place in the 1930s: the decade in which comic book superheroes were born, and the roots to which Ditko now returns, in the twilight of his career.
THE MADMAN (appears in 6, 7, 10, 13, 16)
LOOK AT THAT FACE. Ditko may be all about the hero as an inspiring force, but as a citizen of this world he understands that the vast majority of people are prone to ethical lapses and small, damning compromises. More and more, his recent work focuses less on superheroes bellowing speeches into whatever space is available in the panel, than compromised human beings writhing in psychic agony over their flaws. To continue my religious comparison, to read Ditko is to know we live in a fallen world, though no god awaits these poor souls after death.
The Madman is the only “big” serial Ditko is running in his new comics: a gigantic continuing mystery story featuring modular adventures issue by issue, but potentially building toward something greater. At the center of it all is Matt Madder, a freelance thief and dedicated Individual who is accused of murder and driven insane on drugs in a psychiatric unit. Sadly for everyone, he then escapes from custody, his chemically addled brain inspiring him to dress in a frankly amazing sparkles-and-polka-dot ensemble like a blotter paper rendition of the Spirit, his only mission revenge on the people who double-crossed him: and everyone in the paranoid city of Zane is implicated!
As you can see, Madder's eccentric fashion sense reflects Ditko's visual interests: his slacks are tidy horizontal stripes, while his shirt is mad and squiggled: he is both heroic and unheroic, a victim of rationality-destroying Force and frame-up Fraud that has come back to haunt the city, exposing the ethical rot of so many.
This is another important quality of Ditko's recent work. Often, the “hero” is an overtly inhuman, purely metaphorical agent, disinterested in living in human society at all, and dedicated solely to needling the bad and empowering the good.
By way of illustration, here's the Distorter, a character from #17: Seventeen (#17):
The Distorter is the guy/gal with the power coming out of a hand in a ruffled sleeve in panel two. This is all we ever see of him/her. He/she never speaks. All that happens is that the power -- as with Kirby, crackling dots generally denote the presence of super-energy -- transforms three titans of industry into living shapes, symbolic of their status as jagged aggression, wobbly compromise, and steadfast, square-bound objectivity.
A common knock against Randian folk is that they tend to favor the activities of self-serving corporations against real people, but Ditko avoids this. Indeed, a huge portion of his rogues' gallery is rapacious businessmen and nasty rich dudes who've accumulated money through ill means. Money is not really important to Ditko. By dint of his career biography, he plainly does not place blind trust in corporate actors. What is important is the Ideal, and when his heroes are close to human, they suffer for it in the uncaring world. The ol' Parker luck.
MISS EERIE (appears in 6, 8, 11, 14, 17)
The police of the 1930s did not allow women on the force. So, May Ero became a superhero.
You will not find an origin story more perfect than that, nor will you find as straight-up Golden Age a superhero design as a lady dressing up in a scary mask and beating the snot out of crime without ever losing her totally awesome hat.
Ms. Eerie is definitely my favorite of the new Ditko heroes, and only in part because a man born in 1927 is apparently more capable of devising strong female superhero characters than most writers active in the genre today. Maybe that's a sign your philosophical model is a woman. Miss Eerie is hardly alone in these comics:
Here we see luckless Ida, passed over for the big promotion in favor of mushy Brad, whose “I... I guess I am qualified!” is genuinely hilarious. This is from a two-part story in A Ditko Act 3 (#8) and Act 4 (#9).
Ah, but suddenly Ida and Brad are sucked into a vortex by the Cape, another baffling hero that targets random humans for inter-dimensional mettle-testing, possibly in retaliation for that NBC television series ruining its good name.
Whisked away to the jungles of pre-history, Ida demonstrates to Brad how a self-starting go-getter behaves herself in the wilds of finance.
Finally transported back home, Brad, observing the facts in front of him, arrives at a rational, objective valuation of how he is s****. “...if she'll have me...” sounds like a homage to Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston to me!
THE !? (appears in 6, 9, 12, 15, 18)
Speaking of communication, Ditko does enjoy a good joke, and none are better in the comics form than superhero names that frustrate any attempt at verbal communication. Try pretending this is a movie!
The !? is a gym owner in a bad part of town, at a crossroads between rival gangs. When trouble rears its head, this masked marvel takes to the rooftops, sowing confusion and exasperation (“!?”) amongst those who can't tell which side he's on -- because he has to take a side! He can't possibly be... AN INDIVIDUAL!?!?!?
Crusher Hogan couldn't have done it better. Also, there's a nosy journalist, which is treated in the same way as all nosy journalists are in Steve Ditko comics: with unbridled contempt (see "Ditko Vs. The Press" sidebar below!)!