Stephen John Ditko (November 2, 1927 - June 27, 2018) was the third creator of the Marvel Universe along with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and was most famous for co-creating Spider-Man, the Flagship Franchise of Marvel Comics and company mascot.
Ditko was born in Pennsylvania to a family of working-class Slovak immigrants. In his youth, he loved newspaper comic strips such as Prince Valiant, The Spirit and Batman in the Golden Age Kane/Finger era. After graduating from high school he joined the army in 1945 and did a stint of military service in post-war Germany, where he drew comics for the army newspaper. Upon discharge, Ditko learned that Jerry Robinson (co-creator of The Joker and Batman artist who actually ghosted a lot of the comics under Kane's name before getting credit) was teaching at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now called the School of Visual Arts) and signed up on the GI Bill. Robinson considered Ditko a very bright and hardworking pupil, who showed a lot of promise and talent. Ditko began his professional career in 1953 and worked on a series of minor gigs, including a stint at Jack Kirby's studio with Joe Simon.
Ditko began his professional association at Atlas Comics in 1955. Atlas was the company formerly known as Timely Comics and would go on to be rebranded a third and final time as Marvel Comics. In this period he worked on several anthology comics, where he first collaborated with Stan Lee. Many of these comics were adaptations and short stories in the style of O. Henry. Lee already had begun using a shorthand plotting style which would go on to be called the "Marvel Method", in which he gave a one page or even one line synopsis which Ditko would expand and plot into an entire comic, complete with characters, setting, action, after which Lee provided dialogue. After the runaway success of Fantastic Four literally saved the company Back from the Brink, EIC Stan Lee decided to develop other heroes. One concept was for a teenage hero which he originally went to Jack Kirby, but unsatisfied with the results, Lee went to Ditko instead. The result was Spider-Man, whose iconic costume design, science-based powers, and general look was designed entirely by Ditko. Ditko's other major contribution was Doctor Strange, a character that Lee admits was largely Ditko's idea and creation. Strange never quite headed his own title but Ditko's run on the character and his artwork was a major Cult Classic and made Ditko a hero among the hippies (ironically enough as later events would prove). On account of Stan Lee's famous PR blitz in the pages of Marvel, by which he would sell and promote himself and his crew as a squad of lovable bickering co-workers at the Marvel Bullpennote , Ditko became quite well known among Marvel fans as "Sturdy" Steve Ditko. In other words, Stan Lee made Steve Ditko famous among comics fans as the artist of Spider-Man, which is another one of the tragic ironies of Ditko's life.
Unlike Kirby, whose work is like a grand symphony of grandiose spectacle and mythic archetypes, Ditko's work at its prime was more like a bluesy soloist, determined to follow his own vision to create his own path. As such, he took to Stan Lee's ideas for deeper and more neurotic characterization much more easily than Kirby did and carved out his own special niche into Marvel. That meant while Ditko was not as dominant in the company, his work stood out as something special, such as his original take on Spider-Man and his surreal imagery of his Doctor Strange stories have set the tone for the supernatural in the Marvel Universe for decades. In addition, it was his Incredible Hulk stories where the eponymous character first began to change when he is under extreme stress, turning the character from a Jekyll & Hyde copy into the pop culture embodiment of runaway emotion. He was also the artist who gave Iron Man his iconic red and gold color scheme.
During his run on Spider-Man, Ditko had a falling-out with Lee. The two of them stopped speaking to each other or even meeting one another near the end. Ditko would send his work by mail, and collaboration was done through intermediaries. The dispute apparently began when Lee would demand Ditko to redraw pages for some Spider-Man stories which Ditko did without pay or compensation. Lee's greater public profile led many fans to believe he had written and created Spider-Man, when the mechanics of Marvel Method means that the artists were active storytellers, doing most of the heavy lifting on a issue-by-issue basis. Unlike Kirby, Ditko actually demanded and got credit, and from Issue #25 of Amazing Spider-Man he got a plotting credit (which Ditko was still not satisfied with). A chance remark made by Lee to the press in a famous article, where Lee apparently made fun of Ditko's plotting, also irritated him. Ditko signaled his intention to quit, from issue #38, leaving Marvel abruptly. This was the first major defection and first signal that all was not well at the House of Ideas (followed later when Jack Kirby left DCnote ). The reasons why Ditko left Marvel are a Riddle for the Ages and subject to multiple rumors among fans over the ages, some of them debunked by Ditko himself. Stan Lee, according to Tom Defalco was known to ask writers as a non-sequitur "Say, can you tell me why Steve left?" on many occasions. In the course of his long retirement, Steve Ditko remained silent about his departure from Marvel and refused to mention Spider-Man in any way, shape, or form except when discussing the issue of the origin and development and dispelling some rumors pertaining to the identity of the Green Goblin.
After leaving Marvel, Ditko worked for Warren Comics in 1966-1967 under the legendary Archie Goodwin, working on titles like Creepy and Eerie, horror comics in black-and-white that, while never as famous as his Marvel work, is considered among his best work, and according to Alan Moore, his masterwork. Ditko then returned to Charlton Comics, where he had worked briefly in before Marvel. He worked on some of his classic secondary creations, redesigning Captain Atom, revamping the Blue Beetle and creating The Question and Nightshade, which were all eventually purchased by DC Comics in the 1980s. Ditko would later move to DC himself (shortly before Kirby) to create The Creeper, Hawk and Dove, and Shade, the Changing Man. He returned to Marvel during the era of EIC Jim Shooter, illustrating such titles as Machine Man and Rom Spaceknight.
It is in this period (late 60s and early 70s) that Ditko revealed his interest in Ayn Rand and interest in Objectivism. Nowhere is that more obvious than in his Mr. A stories about a Black and White Morality vigilante (a less commercial version of the Question). This Objectivist turn would make Ditko perennially controversial from then on, with it retroactively casting a shadow on his work on Spider-Man and his break with Marvel. Flo Steinberg, who worked at Marvel at the time, stated that Ditko never spoke about politics to anyone and was quite friendly in his interactions with co-workers. Likewise Ditko was popular among hippies for Dr. Strange and Spider-Man (seen as a progressive teenage role model that students ranked alongside Bob Dylan as an icon of their generationnote ). Ditko's reclusive nature and reputation for weirdness, as well as his refusal to give interviews, made it hard to counter false perceptions about him and his personality, especially against the charisma of Stan Lee. In fact many of Ditko's co-workers over the years described him in personal life as a nice man, affable and friendly to new artists. Roger Stern, who later worked on Spider-Man from 1979-1984 and created the Hobgoblin as a Homage to Ditko's work, described meeting with Ditko in The '70s and finding him quite encouraging to the young up-and-coming writer. Frank McLaughlin, art director at Charlton Comics, described Ditko as "happy-go-lucky" with a "great sense of humor" and quite gentle in person. After returning to Marvel in The '80s he met with Lee briefly and the two had a positive reunion with Lee later commenting on how affable Ditko was (privately in letters afterward, Ditko maintained his opinions on Spider-Man and his feelings about Stan). In either case, most of Ditko's later work was self-published and he remained independent. He would remain uncommunicative and deny interviews while insisting in fan letters that he would always look forward and consider the next project and never think of the past.
Ditko died in June 2018 in his Midtown Manhattan apartment, where he lived alone. The police reported that he had died two days before at the age of 90 but was declared dead later. Ditko never married and had no children, with his only family being a nephew also called Steve Ditko. Stan Lee passed away later the same year, on November 12.
Ditko's great legacy as an artist is his eye for character creation. His run on Spider-Man included, in addition to the title character, his iconic supporting cast and his Rogues Gallery. Many note that Ditko singlehandedly created a rival to Batman's rogues (which was developed organically by multiple writers over the years), such as the Vulture, the Chameleon, the Scorpion, the Lizard, Dr. Octopus, Sandman, Electro, Kraven the Hunter, Green Goblin, Mysterio, the Spider Slayer. And all of that in five years. His later work on Marvel, while developed by other writers also proved durable. This includes Speedball and Squirrel Girl. His work at Charlton Comics and DC (who also later bought and acquired Charlton), also led to a series of creations that proved durable, inspiring in particular Bruce Timm's DC Animated Universe where characters such as The Question, Captain Atom, Hawk and Dove appeared in iconic episodes and found new audiences.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons both cited Ditko's work as a major influence on Watchmen which is both a tribute to his work, and a Deconstructive Parody of some of his more dubious creations. Gibbons cited Ditko's use of the nine panel grid and mix of real locations with the bizarre in his run on Spider-Man as an inspiration for his artwork. The character of Rorschach in Watchmen is a deconstruction and parody of both Mr. A and The Question (which Moore saw as a nerfed version of Mr. A albeit with a more interesting design). Watchmen itself was inspired in part by the acquisition of Ditko's Charlton Charactersnote and the series and its association ultimately raised them in prestige. Ditko himself was once noted to remark that he liked Rorschach who he called as "Mr. A but insane". Moore in any case made it clear that he admired and respected Ditko greatly, and was upset at his treatment at Marvel. Moore appeared as a commentator in Jonathan Ross's 2007 documentary In Search of Steve Ditko where his appraisal was mostly positive. Ditko's run on Spider-Man with Stan Lee was ranked by The Comics Journal as one of the all-time great comics of the 20th Century.
Body of Work
- Lee-Ditko's Spider-Man (1962-1966)
- Doctor Strange (Strange Tales #46, 50, 67146 (Doctor Strange in #110111, 114146), Annual #2 (inking Jack Kirby) (195666)
- Warren Publishing
- Eerie #310 (196667)
- Creepy #916 (196667)
- Showcase #73 (debut, the Creeper) #75 (debut, The Hawk and the Dove) (1968)
- Beware the Creeper #16 (196869)
- The Hawk and the Dove #12 (1968)
- Captain Atom #7889 (196567)
- Blue Beetle #15 (196768)
- Mysterious Suspense #1 (The Question) (1968)
- Mr. A (Comic Art Publishers) (1973)
Tropes associated with Steve Ditko:
- Aggressive Categorism: The first few pages of Avenging World outline the types of people Ditko has issues with: The Mystic, The Skeptical Intellectual, The Middle Roader, The Enlightened, etc...
- Author Avatar:
- Peter Parker◊ in the comics bears a startling resemblance to Steve Ditko◊'s high school yearbook photo. Likewise, early Peter being friendless, aloof, and a little distant is more reflective of Ditko (who was unmarried, single, and a loner) than Lee (who was outgoing, gregarious, married at the time he worked on Spider-Man).
- Likewise Stephen Strange has Ditko's real first name, though whether he named him or Lee did is not clear.
- Author Tract: Mr. A and essentially all of his self published works.
- Black and White Morality: Just in case you don't get it through his didactic comics, Ditko reportedly liked to emphasize his point by taking an index card, blackening one half of it and saying: "This is black and this is white...and there's nothing, nothing in between". The black/white card is the calling card of Mr. A.
- Expy: In Ditko's words, Watchmen's Rorschach is "the one who's like Mr. A, but insane." note
- Intrepid Reporter: Vic Sage (The Question), Jack Ryder (The Creeper), and Rex Gaine (Mr. A) are all this. When he worked on The Amazing Spider-Man, the character of Frederick Foswell was a more unique and neurotic take on the trope (he was a reporter-turned-gangster-turned Reformed Criminal who used his criminal past to go undercover and get information).
- Irony: Of the situational variety. Ditko was an avid Objectivist (though exactly when he came to openly and completely subscribe to Rand has never been made clear), yet the two characters he's most famous for creating, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, both start their origin tales as haughty men only interested in helping themselves to profit who slowly learn how to become heroic altruists.
- Minimalist Cast: Mr. A doesn't have much in the way of supporting characters since his character is given no backstory.
- Old Shame: Infamously used his original art (including his original work on Spider-Man, which he could sell for thousands a piece to collectors) as cutting boards in his studio, as a jab towards Marvel for their mistreatment of him and other artists over the years (and as a statement that he's still working today and shouldn't be defined by the work he did a half-century ago). Of course this didn't stop him, according to his neighbor from still receiving royalty checks in the mailbox, as discovered by reporter Abraham Reismann.
- Reclusive Artist: Only in the sense that he didn't attend comic book conventions or give interviews. Strangely, he was in the phonebook, at least the location of his studio was. He was also known to entertain guests who just happened to go to his studio for whatever reason, and was in the news for writing a very nice reply to a young Spider-Man fan's letter. Even then, however, fans still mostly associated the more accessible Stan Lee with Spider-Man, as Ditko did nothing to promote himself at a time that he could have (Marvel's 25th anniversary).
- Spiritual Successor: For Charlton Comics, Ditko created The Question as a more accessible version of Mr. A.
- Talking Is a Free Action: Mr. A, The Question and Hawk and Dove will often talk their foes to death while in the heat of battle. (Though this wordiness is usually typical of older comics, for Ditko characters, it will probably be about Objectivism.)
- Wall of Text: Notably in his Mr. A and Avenging World.
- Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma: In Ditko's essays, his punctuation can't be faulted, but his tendency to have more than one descriptor or identifier in the same sentence, statement tends to become awkward, unwieldy.