Steve Ditko was a one off.
It might sound hyperbolic–as so many of these sort of pieces do when someone dies–but the man who co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange lived a unique life which had an impact on comics and the wider world forever. Though he strayed from big-two comics and the limelight many years ago, Ditko was a prolific creator right up until his death on June 29th this year.
Mostly known for his work at Marvel Comics, the Pennsylvania-born Ditko studied under some of the most famous names in the business–including Batman artist Jerry Robinson–before joining the studio of comic book legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Kirby and Ditko are interesting counterparts, both changing the landscape of American superhero comics and therefore modern Hollywood. While they held many similarities, each seemed to push the medium of comics and the genre of superheroes in different directions, with Kirby emphasizing action and bombast while Ditko brought out the interpersonal and internal lives of his characters. Still, both struggled to get the recognition that they deserved, with Ditko and Kirby almost written out of the popular historical narrative due to exploitative bad faith contracts, a credit-hungry co-creator in Stan Lee, and a lack of structure to protect creator rights which still persists to this day.
Ditko’s achievements and impact on superhero comics cannot be understated. Before he headed off to join Marvel during the publisher’s formative years, he worked for Charlton Comics and continued there until many years after his original tenure with Marvel ended. You might not immediately know the Charlton name, but to fans of a certain seminal comic it probably sounds familiar. In the ’80s, DC Comics purchased the Charlton character catalog shortly before Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons began work on a book that would incorporate Charlton’s Ditko-heavy roster. That story would of course become Watchmen, although the characters inside ended up turning into analogs of The Question, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and more rather than the original versions.
Rorschach is based on one of Ditko’s Charlton creations, The Question, a faceless genius detective inspired by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, a foundation which would crop up again and again in the artist’s later work. While Watchmen deviated from his beloved Objectivist philosophy, Ditko’s fingerprints can still be found all over the famous limited series, from its characters to its layouts to its thematic explorations. Some might even say that without Ditko’s work at Charlton there would be no Watchmen at all.
There would be no Marvel Universe as we know it without Ditko as well; during his time at Marvel he led the creation of arguably their most famous character, Spider-Man. The street level hero that Ditko and Lee established would for decades set the precedent by which all other superheroes and their comics were judged. It was a mix of the mythic and the mundane that signified Peter Parker’s enduring popularity–after fighting with a tentacled mad scientist, he still had to help pay the bills and get ready to go on a date. This thematic blend mixed with Ditko’s unmistakably weird yet familiar visuals made the series an unmitigated hit.
His other renowned Silver Age creation for Marvel was Doctor Strange, a mystical and cosmic comic where Ditko was truly given the space to showcase his wild imagination, with brilliant ethereal landscapes and dynamic compositions that still set his work apart to this day. He also drew both Hulk and Iron Man, redesigning the latter’s suit into the iconic form-fitting red and gold armor. Despite his virtuosity, Ditko struggled to work under Stan Lee’s editorial direction at Marvel Comics in the ’60s, a struggle which eventually led to the artist’s departure from the publishing house where he made his name. As he created using the “Marvel Method”–a style which requires no upfront script or panel descriptions from the writer–it wasn’t long before Ditko simply plotted and drew his stories without ever consulting Stan Lee. The verbose editor and writer would then write a script to fit the artwork, sometimes changing the direction which Ditko had intended.
Ditko’s eventual departure from Marvel in 1966 led to years of journeying around many different publishers, including Marvel’s number one competition, DC Comics, where he created The Creeper and Hawk and Dove. He also worked on the most well known run of Charlton’s Blue Beetle–whom fans may know better as part of the contemporary DC roster–and had a reputation for being a kind colleague who would treat women in the office well. It was during this era that he created Mr. A, an extension and personal perfection of his thematic interest in Objectivist philosophy. The character would live on as long as its creator, as Ditko was still creating new self-published Mr. A comics late into his life.
Venturing back to big-two comics after a six-year hiatus, Ditko returned to DC and created Shade, The Changing Man. Another short lived surreal story steeped in psychedelia, Shade would later become a flagship title–without Ditko’s involvement or consent–at DC’s mature readers imprint, Vertigo. The ’70s and ’80s were an interesting time in Ditko’s career as he began to work on multiple licensed properties, leading to some fantastic cultural artifacts like a Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos miniseries–based on the animated series of the same name–largely drawn by the master cartoonist, as well as a fantastic Transformers coloring book illustrated by the legend himself. Having returned to Marvel in the ’80s and ’90s, the artist never returned to Spider-Man, instead opting to co-create new characters like Speedball and Squirrel Girl.
In the ’00s, Ditko’s output became largely self-published in partnership with his old Charlton editor Robin Snyder. These strange and vibrant zine-style tracts were filled with essays, new short stories, and illustrated tangents from Ditko, and for the first time gave fans a deep insight into the mind of a man who stopped being a public figure in the 1970s. Ditko was a renowned recluse famed for his eccentricity, and his later work did nothing but exaggerate his mythos. He stated that he wanted to be remembered for the work he did in his later life rather than his past creations, and the output of Snyder and Ditko was engaging, challenging, complex, esoteric, and intriguing as well as often hard to parse, steeped in the Objectivist theory and ideals that defined his later work.
Visually, Ditko continued his artistic evolution throughout his life, continually working towards a more elegant and refined cartooning that reflected his vast experience and unique perspective. While his old work was renowned for deftly detailed costumes and posing, his most recent work eschewed not only colors but graytones as well. This allowed intelligent lines, subtle patterns, and a paired-down shorthand version of dialogue to create rich characters and worlds all on their own. It’s nearly impossible to sum up someone’s life and work in one article, but as he was a man who firmly believed that A = A, it’s safe to at the least say Steve Ditko was a brilliant and groundbreaking cartoonist whose great comics = great comics.
Images: Marvel, Charlton, DC, Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder