Steve Ditko


steve ditko

Steve Ditko (b. 1927) is an American comic book artist and writer best known as the artist and co-creator, with Stan Lee, of ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Doctor Strange.’ As of mid-2012, Ditko continues to work at a studio in Manhattan’s Midtown West neighborhood. He has refused to give interviews or make public appearances since the 1960s, explaining in 1969 that, ‘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.’ He has, however, contributed numerous essays to Robin Snyder’s fanzine ‘The Comics.’

Ditko studied under ‘Batman’ artist Jerry Robinson in Manhattan at the Cartoonist and Illustrators School (later the School of Visual Arts). He began his professional career in 1953, working in the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, beginning as an inker and coming under the influence of artist Mort Meskin. During this time, he then began his long association with Charlton Comics, where he did work in the genres of science fiction, horror, and mystery. He also co-created the superhero ‘Captain Atom’ in 1960.

In the 1950s, Ditko also drew for ‘Atlas Comics,’ a forerunner of ‘Marvel Comics.’ He went on to contribute much significant work to Marvel. In 1966, after being the exclusive artist on ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ and the ‘Doctor Strange’ feature in ‘Strange Tales,’ Ditko left Marvel for reasons never specified. He continued to work for ‘Charlton’ and ‘DC Comics,’ leading a revamps of the long-running character ‘Blue Beetle,’ and creating or co-creating the ‘Question,’ the ‘Creeper,’ ‘Shade,’ the ‘Changing Man,’ and ‘Hawk and Dove.’

Ditko also began contributing to small independent publishers, where he created ‘Mr. A,’ a hero reflecting the influence of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Ditko is an ardent supporter and advocate of Objectivism. Since the 1960s, he has declined most interviews, stating that it is his work he offers readers, and not his personality. 1967’s ‘Mr. A’ had a hard line against criminals that was controversial but Ditko continued to produce ‘Mr. A’ stories and one-pagers until the end of the 1970s. Ditko briefly returned to ‘Mr. A’ in 2000 and in 2009.

The ‘New York Times’ assessed in 2008 that, ‘By the ’70s he was regarded as a slightly old-fashioned odd-ball; by the ’80s he was a commercial has-been, picking up wretched work-for-hire gigs. …following the example of [Ayn] Rand’s John Galt, Ditko hacked out moneymaking work, saving his care for the crabbed Objectivist screeds he published with tiny presses. And boy, could Ditko hack: seeing samples of his ‘Transformers’ coloring book and his Big Boy comic is like hearing Orson Welles sell frozen peas.’

Good with his hands, Ditko in junior high school was part of a group of students who crafted wooden models of German airplanes to aid civilian World War II aircraft-spotters. Upon graduating from Johnstown High School in 1945, he enlisted in the U.S. Army on October 26, 1945, and did military service in postwar Germany, where he drew comics for an Army newspaper. Following his discharge, Ditko learned that his idol, ‘Batman’ artist Jerry Robinson, was teaching at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in New York City. Moving there in 1950, he enrolled in the art school under the G.I. Bill.

Robinson found the young student ‘a very hard worker who really focused on his drawing’ and someone who ‘could work well with other writers as well as write his own stories and create his own characters,’ and he helped Ditko acquire 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.’ Robinson, who invited artists and editors to speak with his class, once brought in Stan Lee, then editor of ‘Atlas Comics,’ and, ‘I think that was when Stan first saw Steve’s work.’

Ditko began professionally illustrating comic books in early 1953, drawing writer Bruce Hamilton’s science-fiction story ‘Stretching Things’ for the Key Publications imprint Stanmor Publications, which sold the story to Ajax/Farrell, where it finally found publication in ‘Fantastic Fears #5’ (cover-dated Feb. 1954). Ditko’s first published work was his second professional story, the six-page ‘Paper Romance’ in ‘Daring Love #1’ (Oct. 1953), published by the Key imprint Gillmor Magazines.

Shortly afterward, Ditko found work at the studio of celebrated writer-artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who had created ‘Captain America’ and other characters and had instituted numerous industry innovations. Beginning as an inker on backgrounds, Ditko was soon working with and learning from Mort Meskin, an artist whose work he had long admired. ‘Meskin was fabulous,’ Ditko once recalled. ‘I couldn’t believe the ease with which he drew: strong compositions, loose pencils, yet complete; detail without clutter. I loved his stuff.’

Ditko then began a long association with the Derby, Connecticut publisher Charlton Comics, a low-budget division of a company best known for song-lyric magazines. Beginning with the cover of ‘The Thing #12’ (Feb. 1954) and the eight-page vampire story ‘Cinderella’ in that issue, Ditko would continue to work intermittently for Charlton until the company’s demise in 1986. He took a hiatus from the company, and comics altogether, in mid-1954, when he contracted tuberculosis and returned to his parents’ home in Johnstown, PA to recuperate.

After he recovered and moved back to New York City in late 1955, Ditko began drawing for Atlas Comics, the 1950s precursor of Marvel Comics, where he would go on to contribute a large number of stories, many considered classic, to Atlas/Marvel’s ‘Strange Tales’ and the newly launched ‘Amazing Adventures,’ ‘Strange Worlds,’ ‘Tales of Suspense,’ and ‘Tales to Astonish,’ issues of which would typically open with a Kirby-drawn monster story, followed by one or two twist-ending thrillers or sci-fi tales drawn by Don Heck, Paul Reinman, or Joe Sinnott, all capped by an often-surreal, sometimes self-reflexive short by Ditko and writer-editor Stan Lee.

These Lee-Ditko short stories proved so popular that ‘Amazing Adventures’ was reformatted to feature such stories exclusively beginning with issue #7 (Dec. 1961), when the comic was rechristened ‘Amazing Adult Fantasy’ — a name intended to reflect its more ‘sophisticated’ nature, as likewise the new tagline ‘The magazine that respects your intelligence,’ Lee in 2009 described these ‘short, five-page filler strips that Steve and I did together,’ originally ‘placed in any of our comics that had a few extra pages to fill,’ as ‘odd fantasy tales that I’d dream up with O. Henry-type endings.’ Giving an early example of what would later be known as the ‘Marvel Method’ of writer-artist collaboration, Lee said, ‘All I had to do was give Steve a one-line description of the plot and he’d be off and running. He’d take those skeleton outlines I had given him and turn them into classic little works of art that ended up being far cooler than I had any right to expect.’

After Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee obtained permission from publisher Martin Goodman to create a new ‘ordinary teen’ superhero named ‘Spider-Man,’ Lee originally approached his leading artist, Jack Kirby. Kirby told Lee about his own 1950s character conception, variously called the ‘Silver Spider’ and ‘Spiderman,’ in which an orphaned boy finds a magic ring that gives him superpowers. Comics historian Greg Theakston says Lee and Kirby ‘immediately sat down for a story conference’ and Lee afterward directed Kirby to flesh out the character and draw some pages. ‘A day or two later,’ Kirby showed Lee the first six pages, and, as Lee recalled, ‘I hated the way he was doing it. Not that he did it badly — it just wasn’t the character I wanted; it was too heroic.’

Lee turned to Ditko, who developed a visual motif Lee found satisfactory, although Lee would later replace Ditko’s original cover with one penciled by Kirby. Ditko said, ‘The Spider-Man’ pages Stan showed me were nothing like the (eventually) published character. In fact, the only drawings of ‘Spider-Man’ were on the splash [i.e., page 1] and at the end [where] Kirby had the guy leaping at you with a web gun… Anyway, the first five pages took place in the home, and the kid finds a ring and turns into ‘Spider-Man.”

Ditko also 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….’ Much earlier, in a rare contemporaneous account, Ditko described his and Lee’s contributions in a mail interview with Gary Martin published in ‘Comic Fan #2’ (Summer 1965): ‘Stan Lee thought the name up. I did costume, web gimmick on wrist & spider signal.’

From 1958 to 1966, Ditko shared a Manhattan studio at 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue with noted fetish artist Eric Stanton, an art-school classmate. When either artist was under deadline pressure, it was not uncommon for them to pitch in and help the other with his assignment. Ditko biographer Blake Bell, without citing sources, said, ‘At one time in history, Ditko denied ever touching Stanton’s work, even though Stanton himself said they would each dabble in each other’s art; mainly spot-inking,’ and the introduction to one book of Stanton’s work says, ‘Eric Stanton drew his pictures in India ink, and they were then hand-coloured by Ditko.’ In a 1988 interview with ‘Theakston,’ Stanton recalled that although his contribution to ‘Spider-Man’ was ‘almost nil,’ he and Ditko had ‘worked on storyboards together and I added a few ideas. But the whole thing was created by Steve on his own… I think I added the business about the webs coming out of his hands.’

Spider-Man debuted in ‘Amazing Fantasy #15’ (Aug. 1962), the final issue of that science-fiction/fantasy anthology series. When the issue proved to be a top seller, Spider-Man was given his own series, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man.’ Lee and Ditko’s collaboration on the series saw the creation of many of the character’s best known antagonists including ‘Doctor Octopus’ in issue #3 (July 1963); the ‘Sandman’ in #4 (Sept. 1963); the ‘Lizard’ in #6 (Nov. 1963); ‘Electro’ in #9 (March 1964); and the ‘Green Goblin’ in #14 (July 1964). Ditko eventually demanded credit for the plotting he was contributing under the Marvel Method. Lee concurred, and starting with #25 (June 1965), Ditko received plot credit for the stories.

One of the most celebrated issues of the Lee-Ditko run is #33 (Feb. 1966), the third part of the story arc ‘If This Be My Destiny…!,’ and featuring the dramatic scene of Spider-Man, through force of will and thoughts of family, escaping from being pinned by heavy machinery. Comics historian Les Daniels noted, ‘Steve Ditko squeezes every ounce of anguish out of Spider-Man’s predicament, complete with visions of the uncle he failed and the aunt he has sworn to save.’ Editor Robert Greenberger wrote in his introduction to the story, ‘These first five pages are a modern-day equivalent to Shakespeare as Parker’s soliloquy sets the stage for his next action. And with dramatic pacing and storytelling, Ditko delivers one of the great sequences in all comics.’

After drawing the final issue of ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (#6, March 1963), Ditko created the supernatural hero ‘Doctor Strange,’ in ‘Strange Tales #110’ (July 1963). Ditko and Lee shortly thereafter relaunched a Hulk series as a short feature in the anthology ‘Tales to Astonish,’ beginning with issue #60 (Oct. 1964). Ditko, inked by George Roussos, penciled the feature through #67 (May 1965). Ditko designed the Hulk’s primary antagonist, the ‘Leader,’ in #62 (Dec. 1964). Ditko also penciled the ‘Iron Man’ feature in ‘Tales of Suspense’ #47–49 (Nov. 1963 – Jan. 1964), with various inkers. The first of these debuted the initial version of Iron Man’s modern red-and-golden armor, though whether Ditko or cover-penciler and principal character designer Jack Kirby designed the costume is uncertain.

Though often overshadowed by his ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ work, Ditko’s ‘Doctor Strange’ artwork has been equally acclaimed, for its surrealistic mystical landscapes and psychedelic visuals that helped make the feature a favorite of college students. ‘People who read ‘Doctor Strange’ thought people at Marvel must be heads [i.e. drug users],’ recalled then-associate editor and former ‘Doctor Strange’ writer Roy Thomas in 1971, ‘because they had had similar experiences high on mushrooms. But … I don’t use hallucinogens, nor do I think any artists do.’ Eventually Lee & Ditko would take ‘Strange’ into ever-more-abstract realms. In an epic 17-issue story arc in ‘Strange Tales #130–146’ (March 1965 – July 1966), Lee & Ditko introduced the cosmic character ‘Eternity,’ who personified the universe and was depicted as a silhouette whose outlines are filled with the cosmos.

As historian Bradford W. Wright describes, ‘Steve Ditko contributed some of his most surrealistic work to the comic book and gave it a disorienting, hallucinogenic quality. Dr. Strange’s adventures take place in bizarre worlds and twisting dimensions that resembled Salvador Dalí paintings. … Inspired by the pulp-fiction magicians of Stan Lee’s childhood as well as by contemporary Beat culture. Dr. Strange remarkably predicted the youth counterculture’s fascination with Eastern mysticism and psychedelia. Never among Marvel’s more popular or accessible characters, Dr. Strange still found a niche among an audience seeking a challenging alternative to more conventional superhero fare.’

Cartoonist and fine artist Seth (the pen name of Gregory Gallant, b. 1962) in 2003 described Ditko’s style as ‘oddball for mainstream comics. Whereas Kirby’s stuff clearly appealed to a boy’s sensibility because there was so much raw power, Ditko’s work was really delicate and cartoony. There was a sense of design to it. You can always recognize anything that Ditko designed because it’s always flowery. There is a lot of embroidered detail in the art, which is almost psychedelic.’

Whichever feature he drew, Ditko’s idiosyncratic, cleanly detailed, instantly recognizable art style, emphasizing mood and anxiety, found great favor with readers. The character of Spider-Man and his troubled personal life meshed well with Ditko’s own interests, which Lee eventually acknowledged by giving the artist plotting credits on the latter part of their 38-issue run. But after four years on the title, Ditko left Marvel; he and Lee had not been on speaking terms for some time, with art and editorial changes handled through intermediaries. The details of the rift remain uncertain, even to Lee, who confessed in 2003, ‘I never really knew Steve on a personal level.’

Ditko later claimed it was Lee who broke off contact and disputed the long-held belief that the disagreement was over the true identity of the ‘Green Goblin’: ‘Stan never knew what he was getting in my Spider-Man stories and covers until after [production manager] Sol Brodsky took the material from me … so there couldn’t have been any disagreement or agreement, no exchanges … no problems between us concerning the Green Goblin or anything else from before issue #25 to my final issues.’

Spider-Man successor artist John Romita, in a 2010 deposition, recalled that Lee and Ditko ‘ended up not being able to work together because they disagreed on almost everything, cultural, social, historically, everything, they disagreed on characters….’ A friendly farewell was given to Ditko in the ‘Bullpen Bulletins’ of ‘Fantastic Four #52’ (July 1966): ‘Steve recently told us he was leaving for personal reasons. After all these years, we’re sorry to see him go, and we wish the talented guy success with his future endeavors.’ Regardless, said Lee in 2007, ‘Quite a few years ago I met him up at the Marvel offices when I was last in New York. And we spoke; he’s a hell of a nice guy and it was very pleasant. … I haven’t heard from him since that meeting.’

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