I’m getting really sick of writing these.
This past weekend it was announced that Steve Ditko passed away over a week ago. Ditko was one of the artistic pillars of the Marvel Age along with Jack Kirby. While his output wasn’t anywhere near as voluminous as Kirby’s, it does include Marvel’s most important character (Spider-Man) and perhaps its most visually groundbreaking strip (Dr. Strange). If you’re a total comics novice, these write-ups from the Times, Post, and Rolling Stone can fill you in on the basics.
I had to really put some thought into this post, because I was honestly not sure where to begin. It occurred to me that if I were a Baby Boomer this would probably be ridiculously easy—I would’ve first discovered Ditko in the pages of those earliest Spider-Man comics, which I would have purchased as a kid off the racks at my local newsstand or pharmacy for twelve cents a pop. But I’m not a Boomer; I’m a Gen-Xer, and back in the 70s Ditko wasn’t doing nearly as much high-profile work.
The more I thought about it though, I’m pretty sure my first taste of Ditko actually was classic Spidey after all—specifically in the pages of that first Marvel Treasury that my sister’s boyfriend gave me, which reprinted Amazing Spider-Man #14, the first appearance of the Green Goblin.
This would have been 1976. I had discovered the Ross Andru version of the Goblin two years earlier. Andru’s Goblin was demonic and scary, while Ditko’s version was, in comparison, just… weird.
Much as I had experienced with Kirby, I would have to develop a taste for Ditko’s work over time. (Probably didn’t help that the Goblin was riding a mechanical “broom” here, as opposed to his far-more-badass “bat glider.”)
“I Vant to Be Alone”
The beginning of the treasury had a faux edition of The Daily Bugle with “articles” on the creators whose work was featured therein. Here’s the one on Stan & Steve:
In Marie Severin’s comically-illustrated “photograph,” Ditko leaps out the window to avoid the “camera”—moving so fast that he leaves his glasses behind, suspended in mid-air. It was meant to be a gag, but one that had its roots in reality. Fact is the number of extant photos of Ditko from that era (or any era, really) can be counted on one hand. He hardly ever spoke and almost never granted interviews. This all played into how he came to be known as “the J. D. Salinger of comics.” He was a notorious recluse, which left him a figure of mystery for many comics fans.
Back to the Comics
Now what was my introduction to Ditko in the more proper, traditional comics form? Good Golly, I’m wracking my brains on this one… it may very well have been Shade the Changing Man #1 (June 1977), which I remember seeing house ads for, and then finding that first issue in the lobby of my orthodontist’s office.
Then there was this brief window during the Bronze Age when Ditko became very active in mainstream comics again, which I remember quite well. First, he took over the relaunched Machine Man title with its tenth issue (Aug. 1979); then he did the Starman feature in Adventure Comics beginning with issue #467 (Jan. 1980). I loved both these characters. During this time, Ditko also drew the first (and only) two Micronauts annuals in 1979 and 1980, respectively.
Then, by the end of 1980, Ditko began a three-issue run in Marvel Spotlight, issues 9-11 (Nov. 1980-Mar. 1981) drawing Captain Universe stories written by Bill Mantlo. These are hidden gems in the Ditko oeuvre, as I really loved the concept of Captain Universe—“the hero who could be you,” as the “unipower” would bestow its gifts upon the most convenient person (or people) available to serve as the captain—and the stories had a classic Marvel vibe to them, usually marked by an O. Henry-esque twist at the end.
More personally, these stories came out at a time when Star Wars was still relatively new and fresh, and thus any concept that had a taste of sci-fi or space opera to it seemed to have extra appeal for me. (This also contributed to my love of his Starman, as well; while Machine Man I liked because Machine Man was just plain cool and fun.) Plus that first story featured a villain named “Mister E” (“mystery”—get it?), which the young me found terribly clever. And, at various points in the story, the young teen who becomes Captain Universe turns a support rod into nunchuks and then a flashlight into a light saber to use against his foes. The appearance of either of these weapons in a story would have thrilled any boy in 1980, but both? I was in heaven.
At some point between ’79 and ‘80 I’d discovered the Pocket Books Spider-Man reprint series and caught up on those classic Ditko issues of ASM in a hurry.
In the back issue bins of the Superhero Shop at the Livingston Mall, I also came across cheap copies of old reprint series like Marvel Collectors Item Classics (which had classic tales of Dr. Strange by Lee & Ditko to go along with stories of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, & Iron Man) and Marvel Tales (which had Lee-Ditko Spidey along with Thor, Human Torch, and Giant Man & Wasp). I specifically remember picking up Marvel Tales #8 there, which reprinted the first appearance of Mysterio from ASM #13, a story I just absolutely loved.
And then it was sometime in ’81 or so when I was at the Quality Comics booth at the U. S. #1 Flea Market, chatting up the dealer (whose name was Brian, I believe) when he asked me who my favorite character was. When I told him it was Spidey, he reached back into one of the bins and pulled out a worn copy of ASM #33 (Feb. 1966), which he gave me for a paltry fifty cents or so, declaring that this was the greatest Spider-Man story ever. In the years and decades since, I’ve found this opinion to be shared almost universally by every other fan of his generation. And hey, they just might be right.
The sequence that stands out in everyone’s memory is Spidey refusing to give up when all appears hopeless, as he’s pinned under what feels like a million tons of heavy machinery while water rapidly fills the chamber. The way Ditko stages it and builds it to the sweetest crescendo, it’s absolute comics genius.
These images also make for a great T-shirt. Why Marvel has never manufactured an official version of their own, I’ll never understand.
It should be noted that while Stan’s dialogue here is note perfect (as usual), Ditko was plotting by himself in addition to doing the art—so I’d say he deserves about 99% of the credit for this sequence and the overall storyline.
Time Marches On
As the decade of the 80s rolled onward, I continued to find more Ditko gems as I began rummaging through back issue bins more than ever before. There was his Charlton stuff, of course—Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, the Question. But there was also Destructor for the short-lived Atlas line, written by Archie Goodwin and inked by Wally Wood, which I found quite a pleasure (both then and now).
Additionally, there was The Fly for Red Circle (Archie), coming out every now and then among the weekly new books. Ditko was plotting this one as well as penciling, and occasionally some Ayn Rand-style philosophizing would sneak into the narrative, which could be off-putting, but it was generally a fun read—and it was always a pleasure to flip through comic pages of Steve Ditko artwork. I even bought the Static books he did for Charlton Action around this time, just so I could look at that art.
In the 90s, Ditko would continue to create fresh concepts for Marvel like Speedball, another character possessed of that inimitable Ditko quirkiness, and Squirrel Girl.
One of a Kind
And all roads lead us back to this. No one else drew like Steve Ditko. Many artists were inspired by him, and you could see this influence in their work, clearly, but they could never be Ditko. Kirby had his imitators, but no one even tried to ape Ditko because it was a fool’s errand. His style was just too idiosyncratic; too much his own.
It was a style that probably wouldn’t even get him hired today. It would be considered bizarre, strange, weird, offbeat, unconventional; not nearly slick or polished enough, and not remotely commercial enough. But all these qualities are precisely the foundation of the charm and appeal of his work. The man had an utterly unique sense of style and design, to go along with an otherworldly imagination. Just look at those Dr. Strange stories… who could ever match that?
Hippies who bought the book back then were utterly convinced Ditko was a “head”—that he dropped acid regularly. Because wouldn’t you have to be high on LSD to come up with images like this?
Then look at characters like the Question, the Creeper… who else designed characters like this? Nobody. If you know your classic comics, you know in one glance who their designer was: It was Ditko, unmistakably. There’s no one else it could ever possibly be.
Go on… look at the Question. The guy’s got no face!
And then the Creeper. The dude’s got yellow skin, green hair, and red fur on his shoulders! Plus some kinda hair on his gloves and boots—what the hell?? There’s no way this costume should work, yet somehow it does.
And how about this guy—anyone else remember “the Odd Man”?
…Or go back to Shade the Changing Man for a sec. Just consider the concept: every issue—actually, multiple times in every issue—Shade has to morph into some new, weird, monster-ized version of himself. That’s several fresh design challenges every issue. How many artists would be up to such challenges?
Only the most extraordinary of creators. That was Steve Ditko.
R.I.P., Steve Ditko.