Sunday, July 8, 2018

In Memoriam: Steve Ditko 1927-2018

 "When I do a job, it's not my personality that I'm offering the readers but my artwork. It's not what I'm like that counts; it's what I did and how well it was done. I produce a product, a comic art story. Steve Ditko is the brand name"

The son of a carpenter who worked for a steel mill (I confess to not knowing that steel mills even needed carpenters), Ditko grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvanian, famous for its 1889 flood, though the waters had receded by the time Ditko arrived.

Artistically inclined, Ditko became a fan of comic books, including the publication above, and decided he'd like to someday draw one himself.

That Detective Comics cover was penciled by Bob Kane and inked by this guy, Jerry Robinson (he looks a little like Batman's nemesis the Joker, doesn't he?) After a stint in the army, Ditko found out Robinson was teaching at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (since renamed the School of Visual Arts) in Manhattan. He promptly moved to the Big Apple and enrolled in Robinson's class.

Ditko's first published work was in a romance comic (Daring Love #1, 1953), a genre one usually doesn't associate with him (though a certain future superhero of his does get shot by Cupid's arrow more than once.)

 Ditko next found employment in the workshop of these two guys, Captain America co-creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. In later years, Ditko would find himself in a bit of a dispute with the latter.

"A Hole in His Head" in the Simon and Kirby publication Black Magic (Dec. 1953)

Ditko also found work at Charlton Comics, where he drew his first cover in 1954.

But the comic book publisher Ditko is most associated with is...

 Huh? What th--? Do they publish comic books or maps?


Well, whatever. Ditko's first published art for Atlas appeared in Journey into Mystery (April 1956). The story was written by Craig Boldman, who would later go on to write the Archie comic strip.

Ditko had an unusually quirky style for a comic book artist, and it may have become apparent that he would need an unusually quirky writer to do him justice.

Does this guy seem quirky enough? No? Let's jump ahead a couple of decades.

Stan Lee, seen here in the 1970s, was Atlas' sole editor, and primary writer back in the '50s. He and Ditko became something of a team, specializing in goofy science-fiction and horror stories with twist endings.

Like I said, quirky.

Though it had seen success (as Timely Comics) in the early 1940s with the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America, Atlas was a ramshackle operation at the beginning of the 1960s. So down on its luck was the company that it could only afford a single writer: editor Lee. Overworked, he soon stopped writing "scripts", i.e., storyboards with dialogue, and simply summarized the story to the artist, who would then storyboard it himself, give it back to Lee, who then added word balloons, all of which would throw "authorship" into question in coming years. But at the time the editor/writer and his artists just went with the flow. There were bigger things to worry about. It looked like Atlas might go under. Decisive action was needed.


 So they changed the name of the company again.

And they started focusing on superheroes, a comic book genre that had begun to make a comeback in the late '50s and early '60s. Eventually, it would be dubbed the "Silver Age". Now, Ditko didn't draw the above cover, some "king" did, but don't worry, this new age wasn't about to pass him by. Amazing Fantasy was slated for cancellation, and Stan Lee decided with that last issue he would conduct a little experiment. There had been teenage superheroes in the past, but they had always been sidekicks--Batman's Robin, Captain America's Bucky--and the Fantastic Four's teenage Human Torch (a reworking of a more mature 1940s character) had to share the spotlight with Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, and the Thing. How about a teenage superhero who was front and center?

Lee went to his main superhero artist, Jack Kirby, who had broken with Joe Simon, and was poised to become to one of the greatest superhero artists ever, actually one of the greatest comic book artists ever, maybe even one of the greatest artists ever, no qualifier necessary (his stuff now hangs in museums), and told him his idea. The idea got stranger still when Lee told him he wanted this new hero based on a...

...spider. Ewww! Who'd base a superhero on THAT?

Then again, who'd ever base a superhero on THIS?

  (What's next? Superheroes based on cockroaches? Slugs? Dandruff?)

Anyway, Kirby got to work, came up with a superhero, and, to the Marvel star artist's surprise, was turned down. It wasn't what Lee was looking for, and so Lee turned to Marvel's quirkiest artist, Steve Ditko:

Unusual artwork, unusual superhero. For one thing we see him crying. Well, heroes have emotions, too. Indeed, Lee wasn't interested in a hero for whom heroism was as natural as breathing (though Ditko may have been; more about that in a moment.) In fact, when Peter Parker finds out he has special powers after being bit by a radioactive spider, he does what most of us would do if the same thing happen to us (well, not exactly, as most of us might first go to an emergency room. I mean, come on, a radioactive spider? That could be unhealthy) Peter, good capitalist that he is, decides to make money off his special powers (an ability to stick to solid objects, super strength, increased leaping capability, and, the one power the science whiz came up with himself, a talent for shooting webs) by going into show biz.  When a burglar runs past him in a TV studio, Peter doesn't even bother to stop him. He's out for himself--let others be do-gooders. Unfortunately, that same burglar ends up killing his beloved uncle, and he learns with great power comes great responsibility. Thus, Peter's morality has its own origin. By the way, notice I keep calling him "Peter" instead of "Spider-Man"? Because this is no Superman pretending he's Clark Kent, but the other way around.

That last issue of Amazing Fantasy sold more copies than any other Marvel comic on the stand in 1962. Lee's experiment obviously judged a success, Spidey got his own comic book, above. This particular cover was drawn by Kirby (who reportedly had a difficult time drawing Spidey) but inside it was all Ditko (and Lee.)

 And the Spider-Man saga got even weirder. Instead of being hailed as a hero, Spidey is labeled a threat by some anal newspaper publisher, and eventually ends up on a wanted poster! A misfit superhero for misfit times created by a misfit writer and a misfit artist. However, misfits don't always agree with each other. More about that in a bit.

The following is thought by many to be Ditko's finest Spider-Man moment:

That's a weight off his shoulders, huh?

Though I like his work on the comic, and forever will be thankful that he created such a memorable character, I have to admit Steve Ditko is not my favorite Spider-Man artist. That would be John Romita, who succeeded him in 1966. But Ditko participation was absolutely essential for his next great character:

A phantasmagorical feast of dreamy, multidimensional delights, Ditko's Dr. Strange, along with Jack Kirby's serving of sumptuous surrealism in the Fantastic Four book, established Marvel as the hottest psychedelic spot in town--or at least on the comic book rack (and yet, as far as anyone knows, neither artist did drugs.)

Spider-Man and Dr. Strange made Ditko one of Marvel's most important artists, so it was a bit of surprise in 1966 when Ditko decided to leave the comic book company. Why? Let's ask the man himself:


"I know why I left Marvel but no one else in this universe knew or knows why. It may be of a mild interest to realize that Stan Lee chose not to know, hear why, I left."

Not all that informative, huh? Well, there's been all kind of speculation over the years, so let's look at that.

Earlier, I told you how, in order to save time, Stan Lee would first summarize the story to the artist, who in turn would storyboard what Lee told him, and that dialogue provided by Lee would be added later. The Marvel Method, it came to be called. Well, according to people who were there at the time, these summaries of Lee got briefer and briefer, until they were reduced to one or two sentences. Not much story to board. The artist was then forced to do much of the plotting himself, and do you know what that's called? WRITING. This caused much discord among the artists, especially Jack Kirby, who after he left Marvel spent the rest of his life bitching about not getting sufficient credit. But Ditko wasn't happy about it either...

...and he eventually demanded and got plotting credit, but that did not end the problems between the two.

Lee's relentless self-promotion also did not sit well with Ditko. The above is from the mid-1970s, long after Ditko left Marvel, but the boast (even if it was often tongue-in-cheek) came up again and again...

...and at least one of those times, Ditko felt he had to set the record straight.

By the way, remember earlier when I told you Lee originally went to Jack Kirby with the idea of Spider-Man? This led Kirby to forever claim that the superhero was originally his brainchild...

...and that didn't sit well with Ditko, either.

And finally, some say a woman came between Lee and Ditko:

Ayn Rand. The author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. No, Lee or Ditko never dated her, but the latter discovered Rand's works around 1965 or so, and became a strong adherent of her philosophy of Objectivism. I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of Objectivism  (or its to-the-right-of-Doctor Doom politics), but one of the philosophy's goals regarding art is the depiction of the Perfect Man (like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, who does a perfectly thorough job of blowing up a building) But Peter Parker was nothing if not imperfect...

...what with his girl problems...

...and inability to make a buck.

This imperfection was part of Spider-Man's appeal, thanks in large part to Ditko, who at first seemed to enjoy portraying him so. But Ditko was now beginning to have second thoughts, and these were out-of-sync with Stan Lee's first and only thoughts about the character. Lee didn't want a hero, but an antihero, partially because he found such a person more interesting to write about, but it also made increasingly good business sense to do so. Counterculture-minded college kids were beginning to pick up Marvel comics, so why alienate them... Ditko seemed intent on doing? Up to the mid-sixties, Ditko had portrayed the disadvantaged and dispossessed with a degree of sympathy. Now he had a villain named the Looter, a term which summed up Rand's feelings about those at bottom of the income scale.  Lee had reasons to fear that Spider-Man might turn into a right-wing scold, and this according to some who were present at the time led to shouting matches between the two, though this was denied by both of them (Where do I stand on all of this? As one who has no particular love for Rand, and has always had a soft spot for antiheroes, I much prefer Lee's vision, but nonetheless admire Ditko for sticking to his Objectivist guns.)

After he left Marvel, Ditko worked at both Charlton Comics and DC where he was expected to leave his personal philosophy out of it, but fellow comic book legend  and now independent publisher Wally Wood gave him a chance to vent:

Mr. A was meant to be Ditko's Objectivist soap box, but from the look of things, it seems to have been more Dirty Harry than Ayn Rand.

In the 1980s, 90's and into the 21st century, Ditko was mainly a freelancer, often for Marvel, where one of his more memorable creations was Squirrel Girl.

 Well, that's about all I have to say about Steve Ditko. Whether it was another planet, another dimension, or the Marvel version of Manhattan, he filled his panels with the most delightful disarray,  the most eyepopping pandemonium, the most exquisite chaos. Yet the disorder that so animated his art may have in fact brought him angst away from the drawing board. So perhaps that's why he embraced the more orderly visions of Ayn Rand. At least he didn't blow up any buildings in the process.


  1. Hi, Kirk!

    This is a wonderful essay about comics artist Steve Ditko, one of the creators of Spider Man and Doctor Strange. The brilliant work of fantasy illustrators like Ditko and writers of comic tales was the stuff that made my childhood magical. My big brother and I used to lounge around his room with horror, sci-fi and superhero comic books scattered about, reading voraciously. Strange Tales was one of my favorites. As you pointed out, comic art is delightfully cluttered and chaotic. You could study a single panel for an hour and continue to notice more detail.

    Thank you very much for this report on the career of the late Steve Ditko, Kirk! Enjoy your week, good buddy!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Shady, I love the way these old comics look on a computer screen, almost as if they were made for it, which of course they weren't.

    3. I couldn't help noticing you removed another comment. :)

    4. Shady, the comment I deleted made me sound like Tonto.

  2. I'm glad both him and Lee got to live long lives

    1. Adam, I hope things start looking up for Lee:

  3. Interesting! I didn't know he created Squirrel Girl too.

    1. Debra, Squirrel Girl is a kind of humorous character, and Ditko was very, very good at humor.