Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who Authored Ditko??

This essay, an investigation on Ditko's Timely-Atlas Fantasy stories, was originally published in Ditkomania # 71. It's been updated and revised for this blog post.

The fantasy stories that Steve Ditko drew for Atlas comics in the late 1950s-early 1960s have always been admired and revered for their originality, mood and charm. The question of authorship of these stories, however, has been riddled with inconsistencies, with Stan Lee usually credited over the years. Lee’s signature did not appear on Ditko stories until 1961. The mythology that has permeated the fan press is that Stan Lee signed everything he wrote, but if that is indeed the truth, then the question cries out: WHO wrote the pre-1961 Ditko stories, of which more than a few read very much like the later Lee signed stories? There is proof of at least one author on a few stories, but the others lead to further speculation. Perhaps somewhere along the line a better understanding of the Lee-Ditko working relationship will emerge, providing some insight into the evolution of what would become the Marvel style of storytelling in the 1960s.

One known fact is that Steve Ditko began working for Editor Stan Lee at Atlas Comics in 1956. Most of the stories were fantasy related, although Ditko did draw a western filler, which, coincidentally, included Stan Lee’s first byline with Ditko (“The Badmen”, Two-Gun Western # 4, May 1956). Carl Wessler scripted some of Ditko’s early fantasy stories (Wessler kept records of the stories he wrote)[1]. With only two stories appearing in 1957-58 for Atlas, Ditko returned with a vengeance in 1959, working on over 100 stories into 1961, most with no writing credits. The tone of many of the early non-Wessler credited stories are distinct; many are very copy-heavy and use names and plots with possible input by Ditko (although Ditko denies writing any stories in this time period). By 1960 the stories became less verbose and many may be either plotted by Lee or Ditko. Larry Lieber, who has been credited with scripting the majority of Jack Kirby drawn feature stories, as well as back-ups by Don Heck, Paul Reinman and Dick Ayers (over Lee plots), is the likely suspect, but this appears to be a falsehood.  A close examination of some of these stories, however, shows an uncanny resemblance to the signed work of Stan Lee, in tone, style and mannerism.

The First Stan Lee and Steve Ditko byline, 2-Gun Western # 4, May 1956

The “fact” that Lee signed everything he wrote begins to unravel with a little detective work. Lee himself has disputed the statement a number of times. Comics’ historian Will Murray interviewed Lee in Comics Scene # 76. In reply to a question regarding the writing of the monster stories, Stan states:

“I only did the ones I signed my name to. But there were some that I did that I didn’t sign because I wasn’t thinking of it.”

Lee elaborated further in email correspondence with this author (Dec 29, 2007):

 “Actually (and this is just a guess, because I really don’t remember) I probably just forgot to sign those stories because in those days it’s hard to describe how rushed we were, trying to meet our torturous deadlines. Or, there’s the off chance that someone else wrote ‘em, but in that case I imagine I’d include the writers name. No, I’d say the odds are I wrote ‘em and forgot to sign, or the letterer forgot to letter my name—or—occasionally (though rarely) my signatures were pasted in and they might have just fallen off.”

Lee makes an error regarding writer credits of the period, which, aside from his name were usually NOT included. Otherwise his statements are consistent, leaving the possibility that he did write unsigned stories.

In an interview with Jim Amash in Alter Ego # 35, April 2004 John Romita replies to the question of who wrote the mid-1950s Captain America stories he illustrated:

  “ … Stan wrote them all. I remember seeing his name on the scripts.”

Lee’s signature is notably absent on these stories but his name may have been on the scripts in an editorial capacity. 

Since Lee has contradicted himself in the past,  should we regard as gospel earlier statements that he signed everything he wrote?  Sometimes misconceptions die hard, and this may be one such instance. 

Do we have proof that Lee wrote ANY unsigned stories? Look to an editorial note from Lee himself, which appears at the end of a signed Lee/Ditko story in Tales of Suspense # 26, December, 1961. Lee wrote:
 “Remember our sensational tale ‘The Silent Screen’ a few issues ago? We still get letters asking for another such unusual tale. ..and now in response to all your requests-here it is- by the same talented artist-writer team who brought you the now classic SILENT SCREEN” (emphasis added).
Tales To Astonish # 26, December 1961 includes Lee's editorial note.

The story Lee refers to appeared in Tales to Astonish # 21, July 1960, which was published five months earlier.

The story Lee alluded to was signed "S.Ditko",
in Tales To Astonish # 21, July 1961
Three months later Lee’s signature began appearing regularly on Ditko drawn stories, beginning with October 1961 dated issues. Why? Did the division of labor alter at some point? Could Lee’s involvement have grown, making him feel his signature was warranted? According to Larry Lieber, Lee took particular interest in Ditko’s stories. Could he have heavily edited Leiber’s (or other writers) stories to suit his tastes, in effect making them read more like his own work? Over time the type of stories changed, focusing on offbeat endings that mirrored the popular Twilight Zone TV series. 

One possible scenario: Lee discussed stories with Ditko, who penciled from his plot synopsis. Lee then handed the pencils to Lieber to dialogue. Ditko may have been unaware of contributors other than Lee (and Carl Wessler, who wrote a handful of stories). There is only one signed Leiber/Ditko story, plotted by Lee, which appeared in Tales of Suspense #37, January 1963. This was a rare lead story drawn by Ditko, called into service when Kirby became occupied working on the new superhero features that were replacing the fantasy stories. If Lee and Ditko DID work in this manner, it may have inadvertently led to the origin of the Marvel method, a technique which would soon dominate the line. While this is an interesting theory, it appears to unravel, as we shall see.

There are many mysteries and contradictions buried beneath the rubble of decades, but a few clues have risen to the surface. Ditko has stated that he worked from Stan Lee plots early on, not full scripts[2]. But how early did this occur?[3] 

One has to go back to the period of the 'Atlas Implosion" for a few answers. In 1957 publisher Martin Goodman lost his distributor and rallied to find another one to pick up his line of comics. His new agreement with Independent News (whose parent company was rival DC) limited him to eight monthly titles. That vast cut-back meant many unused scripts were in inventory, to be used when needed. Some of them undoubtedly wound up on Steve Ditko's desk. At least one has been discovered by Timely-Atlas scholar Michael J. Vassallo:

"Steve Ditko drew seventeen stories for Atlas in 1956 (one published in 1957). The Job #'s run H to L. Then during the pre-hero period, cover date April/59, he draws a war story for Battle #63, job #O-365. [The Hidden Doom!]Again, this is likely an older pre-implosion script already assigned a job number back in 1957, drawn "new" in late 1958."

You can read a detailed account of the Atlas Implosion and its effects in great detail at Mike's blog, of which the above quote originally appeared: 
Vassallo and Tom Lammers have also determined that Lee often recycled published scripts, handing them to artists to revise. “I Know the Secret of the Flying Saucer!” (Tales of Suspense # 11, September 1960) originally appeared as “I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers”, with art by Jack Kirby and inks by Chris Rule in Strange Worlds # 1, December 1958 (no scripting credits on either story). Did Lee hand the script to Ditko and give him carte blanche to alter it? If Ditko reworked the script, with Lee adding dialogue, this may have been the genesis of their later collaborative efforts. Quite a few signed Lee-Ditko stories were revisions of earlier tales, so its entirely possible that the "Marvel method" of plotting stories with an artist evolved from this practice.

"I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers!" Strange Worlds # 1, December 1958 

The final page to "I Know the Secret of the Flying Saucer!"
Tales of Suspense # 11, September 1960

Larry Lieber has stated repeatedly that he didn't write any of the Ditko-drawn stories [4], although he clearly recalls Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Paul Reinman and others illustrating his scripts. He  assumed Lee worked exclusively with Ditko. But it makes absolute sense that Lieber would have no knowledge of Ditko working from either old scripts or revising published stories. 

In the late 1950s-early 1960s Martin Goodman's comic book line was a small operation. Lee was running the company, supported by a secretary (Flo Steinberg in 1963), several freelancer artists, a handful of letterers (headed by Artie Simek) and a single colorist (Stan Goldberg). Sol Brodsky would soon return to assist with production, but that was about it.  Robert Bernstein wrote many early super-hero stories, so it’s possible that he sought work earlier. Goodman oversaw a big operation, including many slick magazines under the parent company, Magazine Management. Perhaps an unknown writer was “slumming” in the comic book division. 

Another theory is that Lee may have deliberately left his name off Ditko's fantasy stories circa 1960-late 1961. Only a few years had passed since the senate hearings on juvenile delinquency and damning books such as Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent remained in the public's mind. Even with the institution of the Comics Code, Lee may have feared the pseudo-horror stories still bore a stigma to them. Lee always signed the teen-humor and westerns of the period - the “safe” stories - but he could have deliberately left his name off the fantasy stories to remain cautious. It may be hard to imagine the impact that the Comics Code had on the industry, especially reading these stories with a present-day mindset, but Lee was aware of how comics were perceived and perhaps thought it best not to be affiliated with anything that might lead to further problems. 

Why then, would Lee do an about-face and add his name to the credits? Shows like the Twilight Zone (1959-1964) were getting critical acclaim, so this may have given Lee incentive to legitimize the fantasy stories he was writing.

A close examination of many of the stories shows distinctive Lee traits that turn up again and again. A few examples include more concise dialogue as opposed to the earlier copy-heavy stories; an abundance of slang words, and fewer balloons per panel. The style and tone of these stories are noticeably different from the early 1960 period. Were they just heavily edited by Lee, or did he write the dialogue?

The question of who authored the unsigned Ditko fantasy stories may never be answered conclusively, but this study points to some of the likely scenarios. As the years progressed, comic books listed detailed credits, everyone from writer to colorist and beyond. Without detailed records one has to diligently navigate and extrapolate on the scraps of information that do exist. One thing is certain, though: the stories signed “Ditko”, “Steve Ditko”, or “Stan Lee and S. Ditko" are memorable and worth seeking out, whoever the true authors may be.

My sincere thanks to everyone who contributed to this essay: Melissa Webb for her copy editing skills, Frank Mastropaolo for his insightful analysis and ongoing quest to make the work the best it can be: the research, interviews and knowledge of Michael J. Vassallo, Robin Snyder, Will Murray and Larry Lieber. and to those on the Ditkomania and Ditko and Kirby lists for their challenging discussions. A special thank you to Steve Ditko, whose creativity and imagination has inspired me to have an active mind and to constantly seek out the truth.  

[1] Known stories include “They’ll be Some Changes Made”, Journey into Mystery #33, “Those Who Vanish” Journey Into Mystery # 38; “The Faceless Man” Journey into Unknown Worlds #45; “No Bars Could Hold Him” Mystery Tales # 45; “None are so Blind” Spellbound # 29; “Who Lurks Down There?” World of Suspense # 2  Thanks to Robin Snyder for the information

[2] “…in regards to our working method, Stan provided the plot ideas.” Steve Ditko, “An Insider’s Part of Comics History Jack Kirby’s Spider-Man”, Robin Snyder’s History of Comics, May 1990 

[3] While Ditko only mentions the year 1961 in his article, he later refers to the five page fantasy stories as “we” meaning he and Stan working on them. It should be noted that Ditko identifies Lee (from all information, erroneously) as the writer of the lead Kirby features as well.

[4] “Steve Ditko would do the last one (story) which Stan wrote himself. Those were special stories with Stan. He liked working with Ditko.” Interview with Larry Leiber, conducted by Will Murray, Comics Scene # 52. This author also spoke to Larry Lieber in a phone conversation on Sept 10, 2004 where he again stated he did not write any of the Ditko stories.    


Although I suspect Lee may have written other stories, I pared this list down to a minimum. My criteria consisted of a few telltale signs of Lee's scripting, including use of slang, short captions and dialogue, humor, emphasis on certain words and the narrator addressing the reader. While there is no absolute proof that Lee provided the dialogue for any of these stories, this list may - at the very least - provide a starting point for further research.


(NOTE: Ditko has stated that he worked with Lee on stories in Amazing Adventures, although only issue # 6 includes a Lee signature)

# 1 (June 1961) “Midnight in the Wax Museum”
# 2 (July 1961)  “Rocky’s Last Ride”
# 3 (Aug 1961) “The Teddy Bear”
# 4 (Sept 1961) “Who or what was…the Bootblack?”
# 5 (Oct 1961) “The Joker”

# 7  (Jan 1960)  “I Come from the Shadow World”
# 14 (Feb 1961) “I Am Gorak”
# 18 (June 1961) “Enter..the Robot!”
# 19 (July 1961) “The Haunted Paper”
# 20 (Aug 1961) “The Bomb”
# 21 (Sept 1961) “Whose Face is in the Mirror?”

# 71 (Oct 1959) “I Dared to Defy Merlin’s…Black Magic!”
# 74 (Apr 1960) “When the Totem Walks”
# 78 (Dec 1960) “The Worm Man”
# 79 (Jan 1961) “ The Ghost of Grismore Castle
# 82 (Mar 1961) “The World Beyond”
# 84 (May 1961) “They Met on Mars”
# 86 (July 1961) “Georgie’s Globe”
# 88 (Sept 1961) “The Lifeless Man”

# 61 (Oct 1960)  “I Opened the Door to Nowhere”
#62  (Nov 1960) “I Can’t Escape from the Creeping Things”
# 63 (Dec 1960) “I Took A Journey into Fear”
# 64 (Jan 1961) “I Must find Korumbu”
# 68 (May 1961) “Where Walks the Ghost?”
# 69 (June 1961) “When Darkness Falls”
#70 (July 1961) “The Stone Man”
#71 (Aug 1961) “The Painting”
#72  (Sept 1961) “Will this be the End of the World?”
#73 (Oct 1961) “One Look Means Doom”

# 7 (Jan 1960) “I Spent Midnight with the Thing on Bald Mountain”
# 8 (Mar 1960) “I Live Again”
# 9 (May 1960) “No Way Out”
# 12 (Oct 1960) “A Monster Waits Outside”
# 14 (Dec 1960) “Behold! I Am the Master of Time!”
# 15 (Jan 1961) “I Am the Invisible”
#16 (Feb 1961) “I Am a Victim of the Sorcerer”
# 17 (Mar 1961) “Beware! Of the Ghastly Glass!”
# 18 (Apr 1961) “Monsteroso!”
# 19 (May 1961) “The Terrible Trap”
# 21 (July 1961) “The Silent Scream” (unsigned, but later noted in an editorial message as Lee-Ditko)
# 22  (Aug 1961) “For Whom the Drum Beats”


Don Alsafi said...

FANTASTIC stuff, Nick! Seriously, truly fascinating. The intricacies of the pre-1961 period is largely unknown to me, and this essay just makes me want to dig in all the more. :)

Nick Caputo said...


Thanks, i'm glad you enjoyed the essay. I've been fascinated with this period of Marvel history for a long time and, while I don't have all the answers, I find the questions fascinating and will ocntinue to explore them from time to time.

Lefisc said...

Nick, this is a test. Sometimes my post don;t appear and I want to check it out

Nick Caputo said...

Well if they don't appear how can you check them out?? :)

Gene Phillips said...

I mentioned your yeoman fact-finding service in a new essay:

Nick Caputo said...

Thanks Gene, your blog is intelligent and well written. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

ZeroNow said...

I think Lee began adding his name to the stories because of the reason presented: They starting getting letters from fans who loved the work. Lee was always after credit and fame, and seeing those stories garner accolades from readers he wanted to put his name on it.