The comic book world lost one of its greatest artists during the summer.
Steve Ditko, the elusive and very private drawer and storyteller, and follower of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, was found dead of natural causes in his New York City apartment on June 29. He was 90.
He was among the triad who created the Marvel Universe, along with artist/storyteller Jack Kirby and editor/writer Stan Lee. In the early 1960s the trio etched out a super-hero universe that’s now a major part of our modern mythos and movie world, garnering billions for the owners with the characters and concepts they created.
Ditko is best remembered for the formation and development of Spider-Man and for creating Doctor Strange. He had also drawn, inked and written pensive short masterpieces for sci-fi and fantasy anthology titles published by Atlas, the precursor of the modern Marvel Comics, and Charlton Comics.
He also created a slew of other characters for competing imprints, including Hawk and Dove, Shade the Changing Man and the Creeper for DC Comics, and The Question for Charlton and Mr. A for Witzend.
Stephen John Ditko was born in Johnstown, Pa., in 1927 to a father also named Stephen, who enjoyed newspaper comic strips and most likely introduced the younger to them, and mother Anna. Ditko had two sisters and a brother. He entered the comics business in 1953 when he was hired as an inker for the studio run by Joe Simon and Kirby, inking on the Black Magic title.
Prior to that he had studied at the Cartoonist and Illustrators School under Jerry Robinson, the historically key Batman artist who created the Joker and Robin.
His first published work was a 1953 story called Paper Romance! in Daring Love 1, printed by Gilmor Magazines, valued at about U.S. $3,000 in near mint. He took a year break, returning to Johnstown in 1954, suffering from tuberculosis. When he returned, he helped create Captain Atom at Charlton Comics in 1960 while also working at Atlas.
While much of early body of his work can arguably be considered his best, he hit stardom in 1962 after he was asked by Lee to remold and redraw a new character that would appear in the last issue of the poor-selling Amazing Fantasy title.
Marvel was at the beginning of its renaissance in 1961. After a decade or so of publishing creature, monster, fantasy and sci-fi short stories, Kirby and Lee struck gold with the Fantastic Four. The following year saw Ant-Man and The Hulk with Thor lurking in the wings.
Kirby had done the first version of this new character but it was too typical of the super-hero genre. Ditko turned not to a muscle-bound super scientist to be the hero, but to something rare in the business, a meek and mild teenager filled with angst, emotion and doubt from an ordinary home in Queens to be bitten by a radioactive spider during a high school field trip.
Although it was Kirby’s rendition of Spider-Man that exploded from the July 1962 cover of Amazing Fantasy 15, the inside story was all Ditko. It tells how that timid teen became something powerful, how he selfishly squandered that talent for money, and of his indifference to the common good when he let a thief escape. Only when he lost his Uncle Ben to that same gun-toting burglar, only after by the twist of fate by paying a high personal cost did Peter Parker learn that with great power comes great responsibility.
Amazing Fantasy 15, a highly volatile book on the market, is valued at about U.S. $340,000 in near mint down to $10,500 for a fair book.
Working on Spider-Man was tense in the 1960s. The platform was for Ditko a debate of being either-or, moral or immoral, right or wrong, anything in-between was a cop out. For Lee, it was the start of the success he’d been chasing since before the Second World War. It was now within his grasp.
They would clash.
But as relations simmered below boiling between the two, Ditko drew, inked, and developed Doctor Strange and his mystical world, first appearing in Strange Tales 110, cover date July 1963, valued about U.S. $17,000 in near mint, $1,020 in good.
After a while, following storyline debates with Lee, Ditko took over the drawing, inks and story plotting from Lee. The editor would stop talking with Ditko, using production manager Sol Brodsky as the go-between. Relations, to say the least, were poor between the two.
“I don’t plot Spider-Man any more,” Lee told the New York Herald Tribune in 1966. “Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip. Since Spidey got so popular, Ditko thinks he’s the genius of the world.”
Worse, Lee took a shot at Ditko in an internal promo for Spider-Man 18, a 1964 issue Ditko differed with Stan over a storyline that had Peter Parker running away from fights to care for his ailing Aunt May.
“Spider-Man 18 features a different type of tale (and aren’t they all?) entitled ‘The End of Spider-Man!’ A lot of readers are sure to hate it, so if you want to know what all the criticism is about, be sure to buy a copy! (How’s THAT for a left-handed sell?),” Lee wrote in the promo.
The freelance comic book artist left Marvel in 1966 after handing in the artwork for “Just a guy named Joe,” which was Amazing Spider-Man 38. Lee wasn’t talking to him, so Ditko told Brodsky to let Stan know he was quitting.
“At some point, I decided to quit Marvel, S-M, DS,” Ditko wrote in a 2015 essay. “My next visit to Marvel, I told Sol I was quitting Marvel. Sol told Stan.
“The only person who had the right to know why I was quitting refused to come out of his office or to call me in. Stan refused to know why,” he wrote.
However, shortly after Ditko died, Lee took to Twitter to pay homage: “I cannot let the week go without commenting on Steve Ditko. Steve was certainly one of the most important creators in the comic book business and his talent was indescribable. I worked with him for many years and was always impressed with how he saw everything in terms of photos and pictures and movement and scenes. He told a story like a fine movie director would.”
Ditko was intensely withdrawn — J.D. Salinger-style private — and it became a quest of Holy Grail proportions for journalists, comic historians and fans to seek him out at his Manhattan studio hoping he would sit down and just talk, get some information about what happened so long ago.
Was it the royalties that were promised but never delivered? Was it creative differences, such has who would be the Green Goblin? Was it philosophical clashes over Rand’s Objectivism and ethics? Was it a personality clash with Stan Lee? Was it all of the above; was it none of the above?
He always refused to speak.
And now we may never truly know.
Rob Lamberti is an action-packed comic collector who once was a crime reporter with the Toronto Sun