Legendary comic book artist Steve Ditko passed away at the end of June at the age of 90, after a prolific and influential career. He is best known for co-creating Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Stan Lee, but Ditko’s contributions to the comic book field go way beyond that as he started out in the early 50’s and remained active into the 90’s and beyond. Ditko had a very simplistic artistic style that was almost cartoonish at times, especially his work from the 70’s and later. But he was a well-respected artist and story-teller, and the characters he created have left lasting impressions on those who would follow in his footsteps.
Steve Ditko got his start in comics in the early fifties drawing mostly sci fi and horror stories for a variety of publishers, though he found stable work at Charlton Comics, a company that he would work for off and on until it closed its doors in the 80’s. His first work for that company, a vampire story titled “Cinderella” appeared in the February 1954 issue of The Thing. He would continue to contribute to that and other Charlton titles throughout the 50’s. He also did work for Atlas comics where he teamed up with the likes of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, again doing mostly sci fi and horror shorts.
In the 1960’s, Ditko made a name for himself when he worked on two important superheroes for Marvel Comics, the company that emerged from Atlas (known as Timely in the the 40’s), and that had made a big splash with The Fantastic Four in 1961. Stan Lee had been busy expanding the company’s line of superheroes (mostly with Jack Kirby up to that point) and he teamed up with Ditko on what would become one of the company’s flagship characters: Spider-Man. Ditko drew the first appearance of the web-crawler in the fifteenth issue of Amazing Adult Fantasy, and he would stay with the character through the first 38 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, establishing much of the lore and many of the characters that other creators would draw from in the years that would follow. Ditko also worked with Stan Lee to create Doctor Strange and would establish much of that character’s universe during his time working on the series.
While Ditko was working at Marvel, he became enamored with the Objectivist philosophy which was developed by author Ayn Rand and explored in her books such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The very individualistic and rigid beliefs promoted by this system impacted his professional career and likely prompted his sudden departure from Marvel. Ditko was apparently not happy that Stan Lee received most of the credit for the Marvel superheroes and the artist also felt he was not paid adequately for his work (Jack Kirby had similar feelings and eventually left Marvel at the beginning of the next decade). Ditko decided that the situation at Marvel was not a good one for him, and he left in the late 60’s after having created some legendary work for that company.
He returned to Charlton Comics where the pay was lower but where he had more creative freedom. He drew several notable characters at the time that Charlton was trying to bolster its line of superhero titles to compete with Marvel and DC. Those included Captain Atom (a character he had co-created back in 1960), a revived Blue Beetle (the third incarnation of that character), and his own new creation The Question. None of those titles lasted long, but the characters would be acquired by DC when Charlton folded in the 80’s and would all have notable runs at that company with different creators. In fact, the Charlton heroes were the ones the Alan Moore originally wanted to use for his Watchmen series, but DC decided to keep those as part of its main line-up. Moore then created his own versions with Night Owl standing in for Blue Beetle, Dr. Manhattan for Captain Atom, and Rorschach for The Question.
After Charlton cancelled its superhero titles, Ditko continued to draw sci fi and horror shorts for the company and he also spent some time creating new characters for DC Comics. He did The Creeper and Hawk and Dove, though neither series caught on at the time they were first published. These two titles would continue to include some of the Objectivist ideas he previously introduced in the Blue Beetle and most overtly in The Question. Ditko would later create Mr. A, essentially a reboot of The Question, and dive headlong into Objectivism. These comics focused heavily on the individual vs. society and shared similarities to themes covered by 1960’s The Prisoner TV series (though that was definitely not a pro-Objectivist platform). But Ditko’s philosophy comics tended to be preachy and self-righteous and failed to find much of an audience at that time.
Sadly, after the 1960’s Ditko’s career went in the direction of a perpetual decline, in part because his Objectivist beliefs often acted as more a hurdle than anything else. He felt like the comics industry did not show the proper appreciation to the creators working in the field, which was very true at that time. But his unwillingness to comprise even a little bit (a very Objectivist stance) in part kept him from ever experiencing much success again in his career.
Throughout the early 70’s he mostly continued to do shorts for Charlton as well as a few other companies such as Warren Publishing. He did return to DC and Marvel later in the decade, but his contributions were minimal because his artwork and story-telling was out of step with what the companies were producing at that time (Jack Kirby ran into the same hurdles at those companies during the mid-to-late 70’s). Ditko did work on such titles as Rom Spacenight, Machine Man, and The Micronauts and even briefly returned to The Creeper for DC. His most notable creation during that time was Shade The Changing Man (a personal favorite of mine in its original form), but it never caught on and was cancelled after eight issues.
Ditko continued to do work in the 80’s but never really took advantage of the wave a creator-owned comics (something which he strongly supported), and most of his work was relegated to backup stories in the sci fi / horror vein as well as tales that continued his attempts to spread Objectivist philosophy. By the 90’s Ditko was so out of step with the industry that he was reduced to providing art for Big Boy comics and various coloring books. He did have a short stint back at Marvel where he co-created the superhero parody character Squirrel Girl who would eventually become quite a success with a 21st century revival by different creators. Ditko also continued to write his objectivist comics up until the time of his death, some of which were self-published or crowd-funded with the help of his long-time friend Robin Snyder.
When Spider-Man hit the big screen in 2002, Ditko was given a co-creator credit for the character, but he was not involved with the film even though had been invited to participate and he received no royalties from it. He had always been a very private person, someone who refused interviews, and had no desire to return to the character or to work with Stan Lee again. He lived in a small apartment in New York City surviving off his military pension and whatever money he made from his sparse comic book work up to the time of his death on June 29th.
Steve Ditko accomplished a lot during the years he worked as a comic book artist, and his contributions will long be remembered and admired. Much like Jack Kirby, his work was highly influential and the characters he helped create have lived on for many, many years. But sadly, he appears to have been broken by the very industry he had give so much to, and after the 1960’s his contributions diminished rapidly. But characters such as Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, The Question, The Creeper, Shade the Changing Man, Squirrel Girl and more have all become essential to the companies that own them and they continue to emphasize the importance of Ditko’s contributions to the field. You can read much more about the artist and his work in the retrospective of his career Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko.
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