Sunday, July 8, 2018

STEVE DITKO (1927-2018)

When I learned of Steve Ditko’s passing, I was overwhelmed. We had lost Harlan Ellison just days before and, like Harlan, Ditko was an original. There had never been anyone quite like him in comics and, though some have tried, there’s still never been anyone like him in comics. An original.

My initial reaction to the news of Ditko’s death was to post one of the shortest Facebook posts I’ve ever posted:

Steve Ditko. Sigh.

That brief message represented two things. The overwhelming rush of events in my own life and my increasingly conflicted estimation of the artist and the man. I needed a few days to figure out what to write about Steve Ditko.

Let’s start with the work for which he will, hopefully, be forever known. Spider-Man. Doctor Strange. Horror and mystery stories that, even when the scripts were less than wonderful, were still amazing because of what Ditko brought to them. He was a wildly creative man and put his mark on so many terrific characters, including Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, the Question, the Creeper, Hawk and Dove and so many other heroes, villains, supporting cast members and just plain people caught in the backgrounds of super-heroic and supernatural events. That he also drew Gorgo and Konga like no one else has ever matched just cemented my love of his work.

There was a time when Ditko was my favorite Marvel Comics artist, even over Jack Kirby. Because Ditko’s Spider-Man seemed very close to my own world and his Doctor Strange very close to my nightmares.  Kirby eventually made the top of my list, but, between the two of them, they taught artists (and even writers) almost everything they would ever need to know to draw Marvel comic books. The two of them defined the look of the Marvel Universe.

If I had to pick one memorable Ditko scene from his early days at Marvel, it would be the issue of Spider-Man where Spidey has been trapped under impossibly large machinery. If my memory serves me, Ditko was plotting the series by this time and so deserves credit for conceiving the four-page sequence in which the trapped Spider-Man, against all the laws of reason and science, somehow lifts the machinery trapping him. He does it because it’s the only way he can save his dying Aunt May. That sequence says so much about heroism that it should be in the dictionary next to the word.

When Ditko left Marvel, my friends and I were pretty upset. One of them blew up his Aurora Spider-Man model, though I suspect he did that as much from his love of blowing things up as any grief over Ditko’s departure. I took it better. I quickly warmed up to Johnny Romita’s art on Spider-Man and I followed Ditko wherever he turned up. That included ACG, Charlton, DC, Dell, Tower and Warren.

Charlton’s Mysterious Suspense #1 with a full-length Question story and Blue Beetle #5 with sort of a super-hero tribute to the writings of Ayn Rand thrilled me as a teenager. I was very conservative in my youth, but, as I got older, smarter and more experienced, I grew out of it. Rand, of course, was not really conservative. She was an evil woman whose motivation was basically “I got mine. Screw you.” She was also a hypocrite, quite willing to accept government “hand-outs” when she was in need. Just as devotion to Rand has destroyed the souls of the Republican party, so it diminished Ditko’s work. The difference was that Ditko was so creative and so talented that you could still find enjoyable comics from him up until recently.

His Creeper was a wonderful design, though the stories never quite lived up to the original concept. Hawk and Dove was an interesting idea that would have been served better if it focused more on the middle ground that could be found between opposing viewpoints. But it always seemed the art and the writing were working against each other. Still, if it was Ditko, I read it. Period.

My personal experience with Ditko was sadly limited. During what I still call my mercifully brief time on staff at DC Comics - circa 1976 - Joe Orlando wanted me to script Ditko’s Shade the Changing Man. After looking over the first issue’s art, I turned down that assignment. I didn’t find any creative/emotional hooks for my own sensibilities and I didn’t want to be just the guy who added words to the art. Had the option of co-plotting the series been offered, I might have reconsidered. That wasn’t on the table.

Much later in my career, when I was writing stories for Spider-Man editor Jim Salicrup, Ditko drew two of my short stories that didn’t feature Spider-Man. The first was a five-page Ant-Man story that I tried to write in the style of the classic Lee/Ditko five-pagers of the pre-hero Marvel Comics. Unfortunately, that idea wasn’t carried through beyond the art and the writing.

The second was a slightly-longer Captain Universe story in which a toddler got the cosmic power. The toddler was based on my own son Eddie. Ditko nailed the action and the humor of the story. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

I inquired (through a third party) about buying the original art, but Ditko wasn’t remotely interested in selling it to me or anyone else. I got the feeling he was, at the very least, annoyed that I had asked about it. To the best of my knowledge, and for reasons I will never understand, Ditko didn’t want to sell his original art. Maybe he was saving the pages for his heirs. Maybe he had some philosophical reasons. It was his choice and I respected it, albeit with considerable disappointment.

I cannot claim to know Steve Ditko the man except through his work and his writings. I loved Ditko’s humorous asides in the comics he drew. However, the more firmly he embraced Rand’s vile philosophy, the more his work struck me as humorless. His attempts at humor or satire quickly devolved into straw man arguments against absurdist caricatures of human beings.

I stuck with Ditko for years. I bought his self-published comics. I was happy that a comics creator of his advanced years was able to continue doing work he felt passionate about. However, his passion could not overcome his waning skills. His comics were neither well-written or well-drawn. I would frequently roll my eyes as I read positive reviews of them. Were these Ditko fans looking at the same comics I was looking at?

Ditko was a complicated creator. He saw the world in some bizarre black-and-white manner that never made any logical sense to me. I was impressed by his determination to live every aspect of his life on his own terms. Even though, at least to me, that life seemed to be increasingly joyless. A few years back, I stopped buying his new work. Looking at it had become painful.

Ditko raised complicated feelings in me. What you’re reading today is my final of several drafts. I’ve written it without any of the negative comments. I’ve written it with more emphasis on his early work and the work he did in the 1980s and 1990s. In every case, I tried to be appreciative of his greatest works and honest about the work I consider inferior. Maybe Ditko would approve of that. Maybe he wouldn’t. It’s not something I can know, though I’m sure there will be pundits who do believe they know his mind.

Ditko had said he wanted to be remembered more for his most recent work than his earlier work. I sometimes feel that way myself, so I guess I have that in common with him. But, as a fan who felt Ditko helped changed the face of comics with his work in the 1950s/1960s, I hope he’s remembered for Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and Gorgo and Konga and Blue Beetle and Captain Atom and all those wonderful horror/sci-fi/supernatural short stories. That’s the best stuff he did. That’s the stuff from which today’s creators can still learn.

Ditko died alone in his apartment. That is a sad truth. I hope he didn’t suffer. I hope that, in the last moments of his life, he was confident of the rightness of his life’s choices. Whatever I might think of those choices and the philosophy that inspired them, Ditko deserved a good end in recognition of all the enjoyment his comics brought to millions of fans. Those who enjoy the comics themselves and those who enjoy the interpretations of his comics in movies and other media.

I celebrate the creativity and passion of Steve Ditko. I mourn his loss. I hope his genius will be remembered forever.

Steve Ditko. An original.

© 2018 Tony Isabella


  1. Terrific commentary on the life and legacy of Steve Ditko, Tony. Your words reflect many of the same thoughts and reactions that I, and I'm sure many others, had about the man. His beliefs and the stridency in which he made them, make his later works hard to read. But I also have a certain admiration for a person so committed, that he eschewed much of the fame--and money--he could have gotten if he compromised even a little. Definitely an original. One of the greatest comic book creators of all time.

  2. Excellent article, and I agree - I applauded his working until the end, although the work itself was not very good and his philosphy made me bristle. I bought it from time to time more as a "thank you from a fan" than as an admirer of that particular work. More of a "Ditko's still at it! Wow!" I hope somewhere inside he knew how much we all appreciated his ability - there are not many who can be put on the same shelf as Kirby and he is one of them!

  3. Tony - This is the best commentary I've read on the life of Steve Ditko. Thank you for your honesty and passion about his life's work.

    Allan Rosenberg