Friday, October 17, 2008

Marvelous Tales: Steve Ditko

It always baffled me as a kid when people told me that could not tell the difference between the art styles of various comicbook artists.

To me, most of the artists creating the comics that I devoured had very distinctive styles. How on (or off) Earth could anyone not see the difference between the styles of Neal Adams, Alex Toth, Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby?

Apparently, if it’s in a comicbook, a lot of people see through invisible filters that render everything into a homogenized Roy Lichtenstein-esque aesthetic.

When I was reading early Marvel Comics, the work of Steve Ditko really stood out and inspired me. He co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, my favorite Marvel characters.

The great Spider-Man #23 cover

Ditko’s work was like no other comics creator at that time. For the most part, his characters were not idealized in their appearance.* The everyman-who-can-be-identified-with-by-anyone look for Peter Parker that Ditko created helped Spider-Man comics attract legions of empathetic readers.

Steve’s characters moved in unique poses and with unusual gestures. Spider-Man swung and leaped just like a Spider-Man should and Doc Strange’s spells were cast unique hand gestures.
Doctor Strange on the defense.
He created a fantastic visual language for casting magic spells that is still emulated today.

Steve’s philosophical beliefs were as unusual as his art style. As the 1960s progressed, Steve became more and more entrenched in Objectivism, a very strict and uncompromising philosophy championed by author Ayn Rand. These beliefs are a major reason why Ditko left Marvel at the height of his popularity.

By the time he left Marvel, Ditko had stopped giving interviews, signing autographs or attending comics conventions. When I moved to NY about a decade later, I figured I’d probably never get to meet him.

However, around 1978, Neal Adams convinced Ditko to attend one of the monthly gatherings of NYC-based comics community that Neal hosted at his midtown apartment. It was there that Jim Starlin introduced me to Steve. I was pretty much tongue-tied but must have not made too horrible of an impression since Ditko occasionally stopped by to visit me when I became a staff editor at Marvel. By that time, Ditko had been back at Marvel for a number of years.

Ditko had some rules about the jobs he’d consider during the ‘80s. He wouldn’t work on stories featuring Spider-Man or Dr. Strange, the characters he rose to fame on in the early ‘60s. He also wanted to only work on stories where the heroes didn’t have major flaws or weaknesses (hard to do since that described many of Marvel’s heroes!).

One of the jobs Ditko agreed to draw for my office was in the first issue of What The--?!, Marvel’s self-parody humor comic. Ditko had drawn short humor jobs in the past so I asked him to do one for our first issue. He was up for it as long as only villains were the targets of the jokes – Ditko felt making fun of true heroes was not appropriate. So I asked Mark Gruenwald to write such a story parodying Secret Wars. He did so (under a pseudonym) and legendary comics artist John Severin agreed to ink it.

During his occasional visits at my office, Ditko would talk at length on a variety of subjects but he’d really get going if the conversation turned to politics or philosophy. He was indeed a true believer in Objectivism and that belief seemed unshakable.

In the late ‘80s, Ditko told me that, when he quit Marvel in the ‘60s, he didn’t turn in two Dr. Strange stories that he’d plotted and penciled. My jaw hit the floor.

This was amazing news and I urged (begged) Ditko to bring in the story! He politely declined, saying he didn’t want the pages to ever be published or copied. I told him that I’d be happy to look over his shoulder as he flipped through the pages/ That way the pages would never leave his hands, but he still declined to bring them in. Since then I’ve fantasized about what those pages look like and what the story was about. I wonder if I’ll ever find out!

Also during one of his visits to Marvel, I asked Steve to sign a page of original Creeper art I’d bought at a convention years before. His reaction that day and a few weeks later when he returned to my office were very memorable. If you want to hear that story, it’s at the end of the audio recording of a panel on Ditko that author Blake Bell moderated at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con. Blake’s recently published hardcover book, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, has already gone into its second printing. Anyone interested in Ditko needs to check it out.

You can access the audio recording of the Ditko panel on Blake’s website on all things Ditko right here.

On all levels, Ditko is a unique creator who has the courage of his convictions. I can’t help wishing, however, that he’d relent about keeping those “long-lost” Dr. Strange pages under wraps.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Ditko and his work – and if you’ve had your own personal Ditko encounters, please share them with me!

*As stated in the San Diego panel, some actors look, to me anyway, like they were drawn by Ditko with a broad nose, strong jaw but short distance between mouth and chin. David Duchovny is one of those actors.


Gerry said...

that story about the 2 lost Dr Strange tales is so tantalising.I hope Ditko changes his mind one day . . . .

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

carl - I used to hang out with ron lim before breaking in, and had the chance back in the day to hang with you as well. Never got to work with you however!

I've linked to your post off of my blog:
and put my own little story about sturdy steve up there as well. nothing too special, just a little memory.

BlackmarketPies said...

"By the time he left Marvel, Ditko had stopped giving interviews, signing autographs or attending comics conventions."

I'm not sure, but I don't think he EVER did those things, before or after. I know he gave one interview with what amounted to one-word answers, and he refused to work on a "Merry Marvel Marching Society" record that the rest of the Marvel Bullpen pitched in on, obviously while he was still at Marvel during that first tenure.

As you probably know, Steve's a private guy, and was, at least from what I've seen, always like that, regardless of where he was with Marvel or Objectivism. Which is a shame, because if he was a bit more exposed, we might not have so many people believing that Alan Greenspan is anywhere close to an "Objectivist."

Michel Fiffe said...

I remember writing a fan letter to him over 10 years ago and I mailed it to what I thought was his home. It was, in fact, his publisher's home, Robyn Snider, and it was returned to me by the post office. Refusing to quit yet almost pushing my luck, I mailed a note to Robyn directly (with my initial fan letter attached), politely asking if he would be so kind as to forward my original fan letter to Ditko.

I was away for that weekend attending a convention in Orlando, Florida (I lived in New Orleans at the time), portfolio in hand and coming home feeling very weird about the Con. I was 19 and I was kinda depressed about the entire experience. I forgot about all of that as soon as I opened my mailbox and found a thick envelope from Steve Ditko! It was not a traditionally supportive letter full of advice and encouragement to a young wannabe; it was a harsh, unfiltered, and unapologetic 5 page handwritten letter about the comics industry, philosophy, and Art. Although initially taken aback, I have learned and grown tremendously from that and the other letters we've written to each other over the last 10 years.

For Ditko's birthday a few days ago, I posted a bunch of my favorite Ditko art at the comics community, scans_daily, and I included a Birthday card I made for him all at the end of the post:

Ditko post:

Before I sign off, I have to tell you that I've always admired and respected your comics work. As a kid collecting comics, you were one of the first creators I noticed that did it all. The fact that you were involved in most aspects of comic creating left an impression on me. For better or worse, I've since aspired to do that very thing. That type of control is, in my opinion, the very thing that makes comics exciting to me.

I'm one of the founders of the webcomics collective known as . My first main contribution to the site was a comic called "Panorama" that is very much Ditko inspired. It's more like Shade the Changing Man meets Tetsuo: the Iron Man movie in a Love & Rockets backdrop. Ditko, of course, hates it! You might enjoy it:

It sounds like you had a great relationship with him. Thanks for the post and for the memories (I looked back into your archives and the Halloween photos were great!). I look forward to more.

Michel Fiffe

Donovan Yaciuk said...

Good call on Duchovny - I will never look at him the same way again! I've always thought David Niven looked a lot like a Ditko drawing come to life, especially with those crows feet around his eyes!

Unknown said...

This is very interesting to read. I've always been a Ditko fan (by way of Spider-Man, of course), and back in "the good old days" I received a Marvel trading card signed by Ditko (and later collected a few signed by Stan Lee and one by Jack Kirby, to complete the triumvirate).