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. Stan 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 (Ditko denies writing any stories in this time period). By 1960 the stories became less verbal 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), has often been 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 Stan signed everything he wrote begins to unravel with a little detective work. Stan 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 one error regarding writer credits of the period, which, aside from his name were usually NOT included. Otherwise his statements remain consistent, leaving the possibility that he did write unsigned stories.

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

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

Lee’s signature is notably absent on these stories.

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

Do we have proof that Lee wrote ANY unsigned stories? We can look to an editorial note from Lee himself, which appears at the end of a signed Lee/Ditko story in Tales of Suspense # 26 (Dec 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, Dec 1961

Stan's Editor's note from the splash page

The story Stan refers to appeared in Tales to Astonish # 21 (July 1960), five months earlier.

The story Stan referenced five months later, signed only "S.Ditko",
from Tales To Astonish # 21, July 1961

 Three months later Stan’s signature began appearing regularly on Ditko stories, beginning with October 1961 dated issues. Is it likely that there were others Lee forgot to sign as well?

Did Stan simply forget to sign some of the stories, or was there a more logical reason? Did the division of labor alter at some point? Could Stan’s involvement have grown, making him feel his signature was warranted? According to Larry Lieber, Stan took particular interest in Ditko’s stories early on. Could he have heavily edited Leiber’s (or other writers) stories to suit his tastes, in effect making them sound 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: Stan discussed stories with Ditko, who penciled from Stan’s plot. Lee then handed the pencils to Lieber to dialogue. Its possible Ditko was unaware of contributors other than Lee, as he never mentioned other writers (aside from a handful of stories written by Carl Wessler). There is only one signed Leiber/Ditko story, plotted by Lee, in Tales of Suspense #37, Jan 1963. This was a rare lead story by Ditko, who was likely called into service because Kirby was busy working on new superhero features which 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, which would soon dominate the Marvel line. While this is an interesting theory, it appears to unravel, as we shall see.

There are many mysteries and contradictions in this time period: while the answers lie hidden beneath the rubble of the fleeting decades, a few clues exist on the surface. Did someone other than Larry Leiber write some of these stories? If so, who? Ditko has stated that he worked from Stan Lee plots early on and did not work from full scripts[2]. The question is how early did this occur?[3] It has also been discovered by comics scholars Michael Vassallo and Tom Lammers that Lee often recycled old scripts, handing them to artists to revise. While the basic plot is the same, such as in “I Know the Secret of the Flying Saucer!” from Tales of Suspense # 11, Sept, 1960, originally presented as “I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers”, art by Jack Kirby; inks by Chris Rule, from Strange Worlds # 1, Dec, 1958 (no scripting credits on either story), there are enough differences to wonder if Stan handed the original script to Ditko, who went off in another direction. If so, this ability to plot stories may have given Stan confidence to work with Ditko in a closer capacity. If Ditko reworked the script, and Stan added dialogue and edited, this may have been the genesis of their working method. Quite a few later signed Lee-Ditko stories were revisions of earlier stories, so it would make sense that they had begun working in this manner earlier on.

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

The last page to "I Know the Secret of the Flying Saucer!"
from Tales of Suspense # 11, Sept 1960

 Larry Lieber has repeatedly stated that he did not write any of the Ditko stories and that Stan worked exclusively with Ditko, meaning either Leiber may have forgotten that he wrote any Ditko stories or, more likely (since he clearly recalls Heck, Reinman and others illustrating his scripts), he never wrote those stories[4].  If Lieber was not the author, then the question begs to be answered, who was? There are very few possible candidates.

Marvel Comics in the late 1950s-early 1960s was far from a robust operation. Lee was running the show with a small staff of freelance artists. Robert Bernstein was one scripter who appeared early on in the super- hero run, so it’s possible that he arrived at Atlas earlier and worked on some of the unsigned stories. Sol Brodsky was working for Atlas as an artist/production assistant: his name would occasionally appear as writer on a number of filler stores, usually in the western genre. Publisher Martin Goodman oversaw a big operation, including many slick magazines, under the parent company, Magazine Management. Perhaps an unknown writer was “slumming” on the comic’s stories. All these theories remain unproven, which leads to another scenario that may have a basis in reality.

Stan Lee may have deliberately left his name off the Ditko fantasy stories. Considering the times, and how few years had passed since the senate hearings and the institution of the Comics Code, Lee may have felt there was still a stigma attached to the pseudo-horror stories and chose not to sign his name because he didn’t want to be associated with them. Lee always signed the teen humor and westerns of the period - the “safe” stories - but he could easily have 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 in a present-day mindset, but Lee was always aware of appearances. Would it do him any good on his resume to have his name displayed on these stories? After all, how did he know if the industry was even going to survive? Why then, would Lee do an about face and add his name to the credits? Shows like the Twilight Zone were getting critical acclaim, so this may have given Stan incentive to legitimize the fantasy stories he was writing.

A close examination of many of the stories shows distinctive Stan Lee traits that turn up over and over. A few examples are the use of sparse dialogue as opposed to the earlier copy-heavy stories; abundance of slang words, and fewer dialogue balloons per panel. The style and tone of these stories are very noticeably different from the early 1960 period. Were they just heavily edited by Stan, or fully dialogued by him?

The question of who authored the Ditko fantasy stories may never be fully answered, but it is not a stretch of the imagination to conclude that Stan Lee, as editor, appreciated and utilized the unique artistry and concepts of Steve Ditko. The truth may forever be clouded by the passage of time, but the evidence on the printed page points to exceptional work in the fantasy stories signed either “Ditko”, “Steve Ditko”, or “Stan Lee and S. Ditko.” They are worth seeking out and enjoying, whoever the true authors may be.

My sincere thanks to all those who contributed to this essay: Melissa Webb for her copyediting and wisdom, Frank Mastropaolo for his insight and intensity: 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 kept my mind active and constantly seeking 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 Stan (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. Lieber again clearly stated he did not write any of the Ditko stories.    


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

# 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.