Second Member of Marvel’s “Big Three” Passes
Sadly, this weekend has seen the death of one of the three creators responsible for the Marvel Universe, Steve Ditko. With Ditko’s death, only Stan Lee is left of the original trilogy of core creators.
Steve Ditko entered the world of comics after his World War II service ended inspired by Batman artist Jerry Robinson, who was teaching at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in New York City. Ditko moved to New York in 1950 and enrolled in the school up under the GI Bill. Robinson remembered Ditko as someone who “could work well with other writers as well as write his own stories and create his own characters” and helped Ditko with a scholarship for the following year. “He was in my class for two years, four or five days a week, five hours a night. It was very intense.”
Ditko’s first professional work in comic books was in 1953 drawing for Stanmore Publications who sold the story “Stretching Things” to Ajax/Farrell, who published it in Fantastic Fears #5. His first published work was the six-page “Paper Romance” in Daring Love #1 (Oct. 1953). Shortly after this Ditko worked at the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Beginning as an inker on backgrounds he was soon working with Mort Meskin, an artist Ditko admired, and who was highly influential on Ditko’s drawing style.
“I couldn’t believe the ease with which he drew: strong compositions, loose pencils, yet complete; detail without clutter. I loved his stuff”
Ditko began a long association with Charlton Comics, an imprint with whom his name was most highly associated with after Marvel Comics, in 1954. The cover to The Thing #12 started this association along with the eight-page vampire story “Cinderella” in the same issue. Ditko would continue to work for Charlton, co-creating Captain Atom, rebooting the popular Blue Beetle character as well as creating The Question, the first of his objectivist heroes. In addition to these notable characters, Ditko produced science fiction, horror, and mystery stories for the company as well as the comic book version of mock-busters such as Konga and Gorgo.
Ditko took a sabbatical from comics when he contracted tuberculosis and moved home to Johnstown. On recovering he moved back to New York and began drawing to Atlas Comics, Martin Goodman’s company and the precursor of Marvel Comics. He would go on to contribute many classic tales to the Atlas/Marvel science fiction and horror lines such as Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales, and others. Ditko’s drawing has a synergy with editor Stan Lee, bringing a quirkiness combined with twist endings to a series of short tales which eventually gained their own book, Amazing Adventures, later to be retitled Amazing Adult Fantasy “The magazine that respects your intelligence.” It is generally understood that Stan Lee gave Ditko a one-line description of the plot and Ditko turned them into short masterpieces that are still highly regarded today.
The history of the origination of Spider-man has too many twists and turns, claims and counterclaims to cover here. The most likely story is that Jack Kirby told Stan Lee about his Silver Spider character featuring an orphan boy who found a magic ring which gave him spider-related powers. Lee didn’t like the idea, but did like the spider idea, and developed it with Steve Ditko. Ditko recalled that “One of the first things I did was to work up a costume. A vital, visual part of the character. I had to know how he looked … before I did any breakdowns. For example, a clinging power so he wouldn’t have hard shoes or boots, a hidden wrist-shooter versus a web gun and holster, etc. … I wasn’t sure Stan would like the idea of covering the character’s face but I did it because it hid an obviously boyish face. It would also add mystery to the character…”
“Stan Lee thought the name up. I did costume, web gimmick on wrist & spider signal” (Ditko in Comic Fan #2 (1965). Spider-Man began in Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962), the final issue of the Lee/Ditko science-fiction/fantasy anthology series. The issue was a bestseller and Spider-Man gained his own series,
In the first 38 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man Lee and Ditko would create most of the recurring cast of Spider-man from Betty Brant, Ned Leeds to Doctor Octopus, The Sandman, and the Green Goblin and many more. Ditko eventually got credit for his plotting starting with issue #25. Whoever created Spider-man there is no doubt that Steve Ditko created the cast of characters and the atmosphere of the book in those first 38 issues.
The other quintessential Ditko character at Marvel Comics was Doctor Strange. Appearing initially in Strange Tales #110 and eventually graduating to his own book. Ditko’s Doctor Strange artwork introduced the public to a unique visualisation of the supernatural world which influences other artists as well as the creators of the Doctor Strange film to this day. Doctor Strange was also the start of the cosmic element in the Marvel Universe as Lee & Ditko took Strange into the epic 17-issue story arc in Strange Tales #130–146 introducing the cosmic character Eternity, later paired with the Living Tribunal and other cosmic entities who are important figures in the Marvel Universe to this day.
While at Marvel Ditko collaborated with Kirby (who regarded Ditko as a friend, and who worked with him later in their careers) on the Incredible Hulk, pencilling issues, creating covers and designing the Incredible Hulk’s Doctor Octopus equivalent The Leader. Although Ditko pencilled other characters at Marvel they did not have the power of Spider-man or Doctor Strange.
Ditko left The Amazing Spider-man, and Marvel Comics with issue #38, and frankly everyone has been playing catch-up since. Although people have speculated about the reason for Ditko leaving, it remains unclear. Depending on who tells the story, it was to do with credit, a breakdown of the relationship between Lee and Ditko, Lee changing the end to the Green Goblin storyline (Ditko himself denied this one)… The speculation goes on. Sadly, the answer will probably never be known, and will be a matter of personal interpretation. Frankl,y Steve Ditko isn’t going to tell you, and Stan Lee doesn’t remember.
Post-Marvel, Ditko worked primarily for DC Comics and Charlton. At DC he had a resurgence with The Creeper and Hawk and Dove, both comics created by him, both doomed to fail within a few issues in a similar way to Kirby’s Fourth World. Anecdotally, the failures of that age – which include Neil Adams’ Deadman, Kirby’s Fourth World, and Ditko’s own work may have been down to the fact that distribution at the time was riddled with mob-based corruption, with comics being stolen and resold but still claimed for as returns. If so, that’s a shame, and I’d suggest the fact that these characters are still going, with Kirby’s forming the centre of the DC Cosmic Universe is a testament to the high quality of the characters and the inventiveness of the creators.
I still remember the joy of receiving Wally Wood’s Witzend from the USA as a boy. There were many things I loved about it, but principally what I loved was Mr A – Ditko’s code-free version of The Question. By this time Ditko was a disciple of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, and whatever you think of it (in my case not much) it formed the philosophical backbone of the rest of Steve Ditko’s work until he died. Although Ditko picked up work at DC, Marvel, and other companies including Topps venture into comic book publishing, for the rest of his life his passion was his creator-owned characters such as Static, The Missing Men, The Mocker, and inherited from Witzend, The Avenging World.
While I disagree with Ditko’s philosophy in many ways, I feel that like the work of Robert Crump or Dave Sim – both of which I also have philosophical disagreements with – there is something exciting about seeing a “pure” creator, funnelling their own concerns about the world through a medium such as comics. I loved Ditko’s contributions to Witzend, and I have pretty steadily loved everything he’s done since.
I see in writing this lengthy obituary I haven’t spoken very much about Ditko’s drawing.
When you think about Steve Ditko it’s very easy to think about his later work, which has a stiffness about it that some dislike. I don’t, but I recognise that some people do. In popular comics at the end of his career I think is very little doubt that Ditko was doing it for the money, and by his objectivist philosophy this would be a completely honourable thing to do. Look at the pages from the Spider-man “If This Be My Destiny!” story arc from The Amazing Spider-man #31-33, especially the sequence in “The Final Chapter” where Spider-man, imprisoned by tons of wreckage on top of him fights to free himself so he may aid others. You will see some of the most explosive and elegant comic art to ever be printed. Ditko’s figures have an elegance to them that rivals that of Gil Kane, and a physicality that rivals that of Jack Kirby. These are two of the greatest artists in the history of comics and Ditko rivals both. Steve Ditko was one of the greatest comic book artists of all time and deserves to stand in their company. He could handle every kind of story from low-key quirky fantasy to fully blown superhero heroics via Science Fiction. The Avenging World, especially the early pieces in Witzend showed Ditko’s ability as a designer, and it’s a revelation. Ditko was an immensely talented, and immensely modest, man. The last few years have seen welcome reprints of Ditko’s oeuvre. I hope now that some of those who have supported him in life will now make an attempt to ensure his legacy.