News broke last night that Steve Ditko had passed away at 90 years old. Ditko co-created Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Question, Mr. A (and by those last two characters was the direct inspiration for Alan Moore’s Rorschach), all of Spider-Man’s classic villains and several DC properties. He was also ironically famously reclusive.
Ditko had started training as a comic book artist after World War II, and in 1953, he was hired by Stan Lee, then writer-editor of Atlas Comics, the company that would change its name to Marvel only eight years later. Ditko, along with Jack Kirby, did much of the artwork for Atlas comics, mostly in science fiction and horror short stories that fit into Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, etc.
At that time, and into 1970, the predominant work method at Atlas-Marvel was for Stan Lee to give a 1-2 page treatment of a comic book story, which was handed to the artist, who did character design, pacing and the action, and some or a lot of suggested dialogue before handing back finished pencils to Lee for dialoguing.
I mention the work method because much of the legends of Lee, Ditko and Kirby now seem to revolve around ownership and credit. The intellectual property provisions in comic books were very different back then. How different? Well, about 25 years before Marvel’s silver age, Seigel and Shuster sold the copyright to Superman for $130.
When Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Hulk, etc started earning Marvel real money, ownership became a source of contention. I tend to look at this whole situation as an (unfortunate) product of the times, and don’t spend too much worrying about who created what.
I think it’s an easy truth to say that Spider-Man was a Ditko-Lee creation. Ditko created his iconic look, set the mood for the book, created his villains, most often with suggested plots and ideas from Lee. And Lee provided dialogue and marketing that appealed to high school and college readers of the 1960s. Without Lee, Ditko’s Spider-Man might have been yelling at protesters and calling them hippies. Without Ditko, Lee’s Spider-Man would have been flat and visually uninspiring.
You’ll notice that most of the images for this post are from Ditko’s Dr. Strange run. I love Ditko’s Spider-Man, but I’ve always been a Dr. Strange fan, and I think some of “Ditko Unbound” best comes through in them. I blogged about my love of this run in a previous post.
Ditko in Strange Tales is surreal, psychedelic, evocative, imaginative, existential and weird in such a fun way that it’s easy to see why he was so beloved of high school and college students of the 60s.
There is no shortage of legendary comic creators who have credited Ditko as a major influence, and some of the focus in the coming days will be on Ditko’s hard rightward political shift, his break with Lee and Marvel, and his reclusiveness. If you’re curious about that part of the Marvel mythos, Jonathan Ross did an excellent documentary on Ditko for the BBC called In Search of Steve Ditko that is available on YouTube.
Ditko himself was against the cult of personality that surrounded some comic creators and no doubt would have just rather that fans just read and enjoy the corpus is left as his statement.
Derek Künsken writes science fiction and fantasy in Gatineau, Québec. When he was 10 years old, his mother gave him 4 comic books, one of which was Dr. Strange #43, and he was hooked. Derek tweets from @Derekkunsken.