comic books

Remembering Steve Ditko, whose place in comic book history feels underrated – and he wanted it that way

ditko_spidey

Friday night brought some sad news for longtime comic book and superhero fans with the news that Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man for Marvel Comics with Stan Lee, had passed away at the age of 90.

Ditko’s death (along with Harlan Ellison’s recent passing) is a reminder that many of the creators responsible for the stories and characters which established the geek culture we currently enjoy did so 50 to 60 years ago. Each time Stan Lee pops up on news alerts for lawsuits, estate disputes or elder abuse allegations, my initial instinct is that he died. The man is 95 years old, though he seems spry in his continued Marvel movie cameos.

Of course, it means we’re getting old too. I probably first read Ditko’s Spider-Man stories 30-plus years ago. When I began reading comics, John Romita Sr., Gil Kane and Ross Andru were the guys drawing Spidey. Marvel’s reprints of the original Spider-Man comics led me to Ditko.

Sure, maybe I just wanted more Spidey stories back then. But this was probably also an early example of appreciating artists by going to the beginning, like listening to a band’s first album or watching a director’s early films. What were those original Spider-Man comics like and how did they compare to the stories I first read?

Ditko’s art fit the idea of Spider-Man so well. A superhero with the powers of a spider would be a bit creepy, right? And Peter Parker was a nerd who got bullied, crushed on girls, was adored by his uncle and aunt, and was a brilliant student. Romita’s version of Spider-Man was a bit too polished, though fit the post-high school version of the character. But Ditko’s version, in addition to the world these characters populated, looked a bit unusual.

Back then, I wanted to be a comic book illustrator when I grew up. My favorite artists were the popular ones of the day, like George Perez and John Byrne, who often composed widescreen splash page action with hyper-detailed figures and backgrounds. Looking at Ditko’s art made me feel like maybe it was OK to draw panels that weren’t epics of layout and detail. That’s not to diminish his artistry at all. It was just another style to consider.

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As I grew older, Ditko’s reclusiveness became more intriguing. The artists I admired often did interviews with comics magazines or books. They discussed their influences and creative processses, the behind-the-scenes details of certain titles and storylines. But not Ditko. He didn’t go on to draw the Avengers or blockbuster Marvel crossovers, though he did co-create Doctor Strange.

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I’ve never been a big Dr. Strange fan, but Ditko’s trippy, psychedelic renderings of mystical dimensions were certainly memorable. Just where did those images come from and what was Ditko on when he drew them? Jack Kirby certainly put his signature on cosmic dimensions, but nothing looked like Ditko’s otherworldly landscapes.

All I wanted out of the Doctor Strange movie was for those Ditko images to be translated to screen. (OK, maybe that wasn’t setting the highest bar.) Thankfully, Marvel and director Scott Derrickson did that.

To say that Ditko didn’t create other memorable comic book characters would be a vast oversight, of course. Ditko fans, and comic book creators who benefited from the characters and stories he created, would be quick to correct that misguided assertion.

Much like Kirby did with his Fourth World characters, Ditko got to tap into different interests and sides of his creativity away from Marvel and Stan Lee. For instance, The Creeper. He might be one of the most distinct heroes (anti-heroes?) ever created.

ditko_creeper

The Question is a strong commentary on vigilantism (one that heavily influenced Rorschach in Watchmen). It’s surprising that the character hasn’t been adapted for TV yet. Too dark for CW. What about FX or HBO? Would that face mask be too expensive to regularly produce on a TV budget?

ditko_question

Blue Beetle was kind of a mix of Tony Stark and Spider-Man. But as he did with Spidey, Ditko designed one of the coolest, most distinct costumes in comic book history. When DC revived the character in the 1980s and gave him a new series, artist Paris Cullins let that Ditko influence shine through.

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I’d actually forgotten Ditko co-created Hawk and Dove, two characters which never interested me terribly. But they’ll be a part of the upcoming Titans TV show on the streaming DC Universe network.

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Then there was Starman, one of numerous versions of that character. I remember this Starman from a back-up story in Adventure Comics #467. It was the first appearance of Prince Gavyn. Maybe this was Ditko’s first attempt at a space opera/epic like Star Wars, though there were many more fantasy elements to the story.

ditko_starman

Young Ian didn’t respond much to the story, perhaps because I couldn’t relate to someone of royalty. Or the story was just a little too dark for me at the time. I don’t think most comic book fans latched on, either. But he did have a typically cool costume, thanks to Ditko.

Ditko fans will surely point out characters I overlooked, like Shade the Changing Man, Speedball or Squirrel Girl, each of whom have signature Ditko touches in their designs. The man just kept working in comics, yet spurned the stardom he was surely due. (Hopefully, he wasn’t deprived of the financial benefits he deserved later in life from creating Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Comic book history hasn’t often been kind to its creators.)

However, he insisted on remaining a mystery. Jonathan Ross made a documentary on searching for Ditko in 2007. I was excited when In Search of Steve Ditko showed at a comic book convention here in Asheville shortly after I moved here in 2010. Ross even found Ditko. But he wouldn’t appear on camera nor agree to an interview, which deprived Ross of a great payoff. He just wouldn’t give in on that, even so late in his career and life.

On one hand, that was admirable. On another, it seemed kind of stubborn and willfully defiant. Give Ross a break after all the work he put in, man. Though if Ditko didn’t want a victory lap, why should he have to take one?

I suppose that leaves it to Ditko’s fans and admirers to tout his legacy. Maybe he was confident enough in his own body of work that he didn’t need such plaudits. Perhaps just doing the work and leaving a large footprint in pop culture was enough. We’ll never know, which is part of Ditko’s enormous appeal, along with creating Marvel Comics’ signature character.

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