A few years ago the BBC broadcast the documentary In Search of Steve Ditko, where Jonathan Ross went… er, in search of Steve Ditko. And jolly good it was too (although I could’ve done without the hounding of the great man). For this long time fan of the elusive Ditko it was great to see him finally get a moment in the spotlight—even if the man himself, true to form, refused to be bathed in its glow.
While Ditko drew a lot of comics in the 1950s, and hundreds more after 1966, it’s his time at Marvel in the early 60s for which he’s most well known. He was, of course, the co-creator (with Stan Lee) of Spider-Man, Marvel’s top-selling character, and one of the most famous super-heroes of all. Even people who have never read a comic know who Spider-Man is. There’s a chance, too, that they’ll have heard of Stan Lee, his name is after all plastered over much Marvel output, and The Man himself is no shy wallflower. By total contrast, Ditko remains an almost complete mystery even to comics fans.
He apparently attended a comics convention back in 1964 but found himself mobbed by fans, and left—never to return. It was too much for the shy artist. There are only a handful of photos of him and possibly one recording of his voice. He prefers his work to speak for itself. And what work it is: Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain Atom, the Question, Hawk & Dove, the Creeper, Shade: The Changing Man, Speedball, alongside dozens of others. Some he created, others he merely worked on for short runs, but all are worth a look.
More than any other creator, he shuns popularity, and seems most happy producing personal work that will appeal to few, but which means a lot to him. Mr A, Static, and the Mocker are just a few of the characters he created to put forward his particular philosophical, political and heartfelt ideas. He’s something of a student of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, where the world is seen in terms of black and white—good and bad—with little time for notions of subjectivity and shades of grey. While these strips are always well drawn and interesting, they can’t truly be called enjoyable, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone being persuaded by the arguments the characters spout. But, then, the probably not the point: Ditko speaks to the converted—and more power to him for trying. It’s a rare person indeed who is willing to put forward personal beliefs that many will ridicule.
Ditko’s art is always a joy to behold, and he’s a marvelous storyteller. On a mainstream project that he cares little about, I think it’s fair to say his figures can be somewhat stiff and mannered. When his imagination is captured, though, his characters leap fluidly off the page. Just look at those early Spider-Man tales: Spidey moves like nothing on earth, but Ditko makes it believable. Contrast his work with what was done by some artists in the late-80s and beyond where Spidey was contorted to a ridiculous degree. The forty or so Spider-Man issues drawn by Ditko and scripted by Lee stand the test of time as some of the greatest super-hero comics ever. So much so, they’re still reprinting them almost fifty years later.
No one has ever come close to reproducing what Ditko managed to achieve on Doctor Strange. Given free reign, Ditko’s imagination ran wild, and Strange moved through other-worldly dimensions that people can only dream of. Who needed mind-expanding drugs when all they had to do was flip open a copy of Strange Tales?
The documentary’s premise was based around there being a mystery over why Ditko left Marvel unexpectedly in 1966. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. While Ditko doesn’t like to go public, and refuses interviews, he is actually a real person and not a cypher. He does talk to people, and he’s been happy enough to discuss his reasons with collegues over the years. Ditko left Marvel over what he felt were unfulfilled promises made to him by publisher Martin Goodman for better financial recompense and credit. Given what we know of Ditko from reading his Mr A tales, it’s obvious that he could not continue to work for someone who had lied to him. Once Goodman had gone—and Lee had moved to the West coast—Ditko did return to Marvel, though he refused to ever again draw Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. When Spidey appeared in the huge Wraith War finale in Rom it was only because inker Jackson Guice drew him in.
Ditko officially retired from comics in 1998 and these days, in his 80s, he occasionally pens an essay on some aspect of comics history, or his beliefs, for Robin Snyder’s The Comics newsletter. After all he’s done for comics he deserves to be allowed to carry on as he wants, and be left in peace—but I really wish that, just once, he’d do a long, in-depth interview and give his side of the story to the world.
I know I’d really love to hear what he has to say.
UPDATE: I’m informed that Ditko is currently producing new work for Snyder on a semi-regular basis — see the comments below for more.
Art ©2011 Steve Ditko