Saturday, July 7, 2018

S. Ditko 1927-2018: An Independent Mind

"The creator seeks worthy values. He has the drive and ambition and is willing to struggle with no  guarantees of success or security. He offers his best for all others to consider - to accept or reject." Steve Ditko, Laszlo's Hammer, 1992

The thinking artist. A page from Lazlo's Hammer, (1992) which illustrates Ditko's storytelling process.  

A fiercely independent man, Steve Ditko walked a path distinctly his own through the comic book industry for over 60 years. Early on Ditko distinguished himself as a versatile artist, drawing horror, science fiction, crime, mystery, war, western, romance and humor stories. In itself worthy of praise, but Ditko transcended mere technical proficiency by infusing his work with a deeply-held, unwavering philosophical ideology. That aspect, above all others, wove its way throughout his storied career.      

Captain Atom, which debuted at Charlton in1960, was Ditko's first superhero strip. the character was created and written by Joe Gill and  designed by Ditko. Ditko's tribute to Charlton writer Joe Gill appeared in Steve Ditko's 160 Page Package, 1999. 

In the years (and decades) that followed, Ditko created, co-created, or re-created a litany of heroes, including Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Blue Beetle, The Question, The Creeper, Hawk and the Dove, The Destructor, Stalker, The Void, Killjoy, Shade, Starman, The Missing Man, Speedball, The Mocker, Static, Miss Eerie, Madman and many others. Ditko's striking designs made his characters instantly recognizable. Just as important was Ditko's ability to bring characters to life with gestures, body language and facial expressions. He was one of the masters in that category.    

A sampling of Ditko's costuming. From top to bottom: Spider-Man, certainly his most recognizable design, rendered in cartoons, movies, computer games, tee shirts, toys and other merchandising; Doctor Strange; The Blue Beetle (a long-running character Ditko overhauled in 1966); The Creeper; Shade, the Changing Man; Static and The Baffler.         

In 1967 Ditko broke new ground by creating Mr. A, a character copyrighted in his name. Lacking either a costume or special powers, only Mr. A's face was concealed. Freed from the confines of the Comics Code Authority, Ditko's moral avenger took on the underworld and criminals in a black and white world, both literally and figuratively (Mr. A, quite deliberately, never appeared in a color comic). Featured in fanzines and independent publications on and off for over 50 years, co-publisher Robin Snyder has continued to release reprint and unpublished material starring Ditko's seminal hero. 

                       Mr. A illustration from Eon # 3, 1968

Ditko's characters inhabited a world where actions have consequences. He believed in heroism, justice and individual rights, which was echoed in all his fictional constructs. He was unwavering in his convictions and refused assignments that didn't adhere to his standards. He avoided the spotlight and had no interest in being a celebrity. To some that made him an oddball, a kook, or worse. What mattered to Ditko - what he ferociously embraced - was the work. It was this single-minded intensity that made him a compelling figure.  

Ditko was an inspiration from my earliest days. His art spoke to me on a very personal level. I'm glad I was able to correspond with him these past years. He was a man of letters, more comfortable, I suspect, writing than speaking. As many familiar with my blog know, I've written much about Ditko's work these past years. That will most assuredly continue. 

Thank you, Steve, for the innumerable hours of crafting stories with pencil, ink and paper. Most importantly, thanks for the thought you put into so much of your work.

Dedicated with respect and admiration to Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder.          

My friend Barry Pearl has also written a touching tribute on his blog:


Kid said...

It's a shame he's gone, Nick, and my admiration for his art when he was at the peak of his powers remains undiminished, but he did seem to behave like a bit of a 'kook' on occasion according to some of those who knew him. (Which I didn't.) I remember reading something on Mark Evanier's blog (I think, apologies to him if I'm wrong) where he said that Ditko was perfectly friendly towards him when they first met, until, in their occasional and brief chats, ME disagreed with him on some things. Stan found Steve difficult to work with (though not at first) because of his eventual unbending demands about sound-effects, storylines, calling Spider-Man 'Spidey' or the 'Web-Spinner', etc. It's great to have principles I guess, but maybe not when they're what other good people consider the 'wrong' (or awkward) principles. Or when you distance yourself from others (or keep others at a distance from you, which is possibly the same thing) just because they don't share your views.

Having said that though, I hope he rests in peace and that we can enjoy his best work in reprints for many more years to come.

Nick Caputo said...

Hi Kid,

Thanks, as always, for your comments. I've heard many different accounts about working with Ditko over the years, from pleasant to difficult. Certainly Ditko was intense and took the work more seriously than some, and that may have stymied many, but that was his character, and we likely would not have had the quirky, offbeat and unique nature in Spider-Man or Doctor Strange (to name two) if Ditko didn't invest so much into it.

Lefisc said...

Nick, I am glad that you reminded people that Ditko, partnered with Robin Snyder, self published. In doing so he did not have to concern himself with editors or publishers, he just got the word out the way he wanted to. I say the word because he not only drew stories but he wrote many articles.

From what I have seen of current Comics values are eliminated, Steve never lost any of his. Gosh, will he be missed.

Nick Caputo said...


Yes, Robin Snyder was an essential part of Ditko's history these past 30 years, providing him an outlet for comics and essays. I'm glad the two were able to partner.

Emmanuel Péhau said...

In my book to call some one you don't know from eve a kook you've got to have more to back up your claim than only two "witnesses", especially when one of them has long been established as an unreliable narrator and has flagrant interest in depecting the partner who quits as impossible to live/work with.

The Marvel women and men from the seventies on seem to have nothing to tell but stories of Ditko as an avuncular figure, a bit on the conservative side but ultimately empathic and usually charming.

The Charlton women and men usually depicts him as an extremely reliable employee and a charming, unassuming even shy young fellow who used to bring something sweet to eat whenever he would come to the office. Some have attested that talking politics with him could be an unpleasant experience but talking politics is not really the same thing as working with him, you can avoid it. (In the eighties, when his ideas started to become mainstream and he has less reason to be défensive about them and people have less reason to attack them head on, strangely even this source of conflict ceases to be mebtioned.)

Emmanuel Péhau said...

In my experience the bad Ditko stories can be traced back to two sources :

1. Marvel "bullpeners" of the second half of the sixties who weren't there when Stan and Steve were still on speaking terms and seem to relay the boss's side of the story, adding filtrer over time but the rot had set in.
2.the fan press responding to Ditko's decision to accept private correspondences and conversations but no more public record outside of Robin Snyder's.

The fact that he was a man with convictions that few shared for a long time and were anti-social in content also helped people swallow the portrait of Ditko as a misanthropic / fanatic / reclusive kind of guy

Emmanuel Péhau said...

That said, thanks for those inspiring heartfelt words mr Caputo

Richard Caldwell said...

Yours may well be my favorite of the many tributes and obits I've read over the past week, Nick. I was the guy who wrote the Speedball essay in Ditkomania, sharing my preteen-era response from DeFalco over my then-concern over that character's whereabouts after cancellation. Ditko's work had a profound effect on me, the first artist I recognized, prompting me to actively follow his work. Some of the very first comix I ever read were the Captain Universe tales he did with Bill Mantlo way back, left to me by my dad. He was the only Objectivist I ever encountered in real life, so to better understand my dad, and my favorite comics guy, I stomached a lot of Rand's works, just to see where their heads were at; to understand where they were coming from. Which eventually prompted me to be a journo myself for some years, to better understand others as well.

If I had to pick favorites, story-wise, I always loved the Safest Place one-shot Ditko accomplished for Dark Horse way back. Art-wise, there was an issue of Magnus: Robot Fighter where he was inked by Ralph Reese, which just always struck me as Raphaelian in shear beauty of the line work.

I loved Ditko's work so much, everything with his name on it from the early romance stuff to his grey-washed supernatural stuff for Archie Goodwin to that freaking Chuck Norris comic of the 80s. He's too easily pigeon-holed by too many journalists in spite of cultivating one of the more diverse catalogs of any creator. I really feel that in a fairer world, he would be noted as the most important figure in the history of American comix.

Kid said...

When a favourite comicbook artist dies, there are at least two camps which pitch their tents in the aftermath. Those who loved the best of the artist's work, but recognise that he/she was just a human being with faults and foibles the same as the rest of us, and those who consider even the worst of the artist's work from later years on par with the Sistine Chapel, and who deify the artist beyond what is reasonable or sensible.

When Kirby died, Stan Lee was seen as the Anti-Christ (or should that be the Anti-Life?) to some people, and everything that Jack wrote or drew was regarded as being of equal merit, with some going so far as to suggest that his pencil art should never have been inked and his words left unedited - as if they were holy scripture that shouldn't be touched.

I can see the same thing happening with Ditko. I'm sure he was a nice man, but he was, on occasion, perceived as being at least mildly eccentric and a bit 'kooky'. To recognise this is not the same thing as suggesting that he was a horrible, nasty, bad, seriously weird individual (not that anybody has ever suggested this as far as I know), who is unworthy of our admiration and respect.

We all have favourite singers, and I'm sure that most of us would admit that not all of their songs are equally as good or even equally well-sung, but it does not detract in the slightest from our appreciation of them at their best. I just wish that more comicbook fans could have the same opinion in regard to their favourite artists, and not place them on unrealistically high pedestals on which even the object of their idolatry would feel uncomfortable.

Steve Ditko was one of the greats and he shall remain so; however, not everything he drew in later years was of the same high standard as in his heyday and the evidence of that illustrates this very post. And even if we allow for the possibility that he was occasionally a little odd, then so what? It ain't a crime to be odd now and again as long as you're not hurting anybody.

Rest in peace, Steve. Your work shall live on.

Richard Caldwell said...

@Kid, I agree considerably. I actually just wrote in a non-related essay how cults of personality only ever benefit the centerpieces, and that any hero-worship invariably leads down a one-way street prompting an eventual turnaround. In person I doubt Ditko and I could have gotten along much. My limited experience on the other side of the comic book fence got me reasonably blacklisted left and right, which I took in stride as being blacklisted from comix is like being denied a spot in a human centipede. Ditko may have thrown his hands up over certain other professionals, certain publishers, where I walked on the whole game, slamming the door behind me. He never gave up on the medium. I see brand loyalty as no different from religious zealotry.

He was a kook, just not in the ways he's generally charged for. He wasn't a comic book rebel, but rather he believed in their power far more than Joe Q Creator ever seems to. I can love his stories to my own dying day though. My catalog of his stuff is generous enough so that I haven't felt the need to pay for another comic in well over a decade. If I were in his shoes, I wouldn't just snub new work from Marvel or DC, I'd sneak in at night to plant stink-bombs everywhere. But being a true artist, he was naturally gracious like that, for letting those who made his sacrifices all the more problematic get off easy.

Richard Caldwell said...

Not to eat up the comments, but I just wanted to add this.

While I defy anyone to name a more devout Objectivist, especially one following that path for so many decades, his real fundamentalism was towards comic books. He wasn't chairing the Ayn Rand Foundation; he used that ideological pathos as a tool for cultivating his creative outputs into the comics medium. He gave his life to comics, at the personal loss of depriving himself of a wife and kids and the rest of the nuclear family, American pipe-Dream. He was an absolute fundamentalist in that regard, only for a creative industry as opposed to a philosophy. And perhaps in that way was he most flawed, because by contributing to the medium's longevity, he enabled its continuation, thus inadvertently enabling those wielding ultimate power of that medium. His own essays were like band-aids on a cancer. They were extremely well-considered, but to really challenge/upset the status quo would be to kick in its kneecaps altogether.

All of this is speculation though, with a probably wrongful amount of projection on my part. For all any of us know, he had a long-lived love affair with a sultry little thing, drinking it up together like Bukowski characters and producing out of wedlock bastard children by the bushel and the peck; maybe even proudly, quietly serving as the leading pot-dealer in his tenement building's block. Maybe he was posting on comic boards under pseudonyms all along, ripping the Big Two new dimensions of new arseholes. We don't know anything about him but his body of work. Behind closed doors he could've been the biggest turd our species has ever known, but his body of work was clearly something else. We can't praise what we don't know, but we can appreciate what we do.

Nick Caputo said...

Emmanuel, Richard and Kid: Thanks for the kind words and observations. The Safest Place was one of his best solo efforts in terms of story, art and concept. I also agree that Ditko has too often been pigeonholed, going from Spider-Man/Dr. Strange to his objectivist/political tracts (another error, since he didn't talk politics but philosophy). His long career was diverse, and I've tried to feature some of that forgotten work on this blog from time to time.

Ditko clearly loved the comic book medium, telling pictures with words and pictures, and stayed in it till the end. He was also a fan who knew the history of comics and enjoyed the work of many artists. Unlike Kid I've been fascinated by much of his independent work. I've not found everything he has produced to my liking, but this blog has always been on a positive level, writing about stuff I enjoy and hopefully expressing why I do well enough that someone can at least understand - if not agree with - my assessment. Personal attacks, even knocking down work I'm unhappy with, has never been my goal or interest (although critical discussion/analysis does come into play from time to time). So when I write about Ditko, Kirby, Don Heck, Bill Everett. Stan Lee, Herb Trimpe, Marie Severin, Chester Gould or any other creators works I'll always tend to the positive.

Michael Hill said...
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Kid said...

Don't worry, Nick - I wasn't including you in the ranks of those who deify their favourite comicbook artists; I know you could never be accused of that. However, there are those who do, and it was them I had in mind when I composed my previous comment. I fear that with Steve's death, we're going to be seeing some more anti-Stan sentiment doing the rounds.

Nick Caputo said...

No worries, Kid. Discussion is welcome here, but I will delete posts from people who choose to attack and curse me, you (and others) out, putting us in an "anti-Ditko" camp. I'll not respect those words by replying.

Michael Hill said...
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Anonymous said...

RIP Steve Ditko. In an era where everyone wants to be the "next big thing" and where entitlement is rampant among many stratas of society, it was nice that there was an comic artist who was humble & not a entitled, obnoxious a-hole like some artists.

I.e., I always found it obnoxious that Stan Lee had his name plastered all over Marvel comics that he had absolutely nothing to do with. Lee took a lot more credit than he should have for Marvel characters. He never drew comics, and if it hadn't been for artists like Ditko & Kirby, Stan & Marvel comics would have been NOTHING.

Kid said...

I think that, while it may be true to say that Stan (and Marvel) certainly benefitted from having Jack and Steve, it's also fair to say that without Stan, both Jack and Steve (and Marvel) wouldn't have enjoyed the same degree of success and renown. The magic only seemed to happen to the same degree when they 'collaborated', so without Stan (whatever you think his contribution was or wasn't), Marvel probably wouldn't have been Marvel.

Michael Tuz said...

Steve Ditko was that rarest of human beings...a true individual. His art, like his persona, was uniquely his own.
There was much in his philosophy with which I strongly disagreed, and thus much of his later work which I didn't care for. But I always respected his willingness, his drive, his passion for speaking his mind, for sharing his perspective with those who would listen.
In a culture in which superlatives are so often overused, I am not hesitant to say that Steve Ditko was, in many ways, the embodiment of greatness.
We are so fortunate that walked among us.

Whoswhoz said...

Regardless of what I thought of the meaning of Ditko's later work, the artwork was always great. I can look at those "Packages" from Ditko/Snyder with the same awe that I look at an early Spider-Man. True one is more commercial than the other, but there is no falling off of artistic quality. It is the nature of the artist to continue to follow his or her muse to the bitter end regardless of weather that leads to continued commercial success or not. Sometimes the artist has to deal with the betrayal of the physical, like Kirby or Charles Schultz did in his later years, but the muse shines through anyway. And to say that the later stuff is not "as good" as the early stuff is missing the point.

Nick Caputo said...

I think Ditko's work with Robin Snyder had more in common with the indy comics scene than with mainstream comics. The ability to produce with pen and paper, no frills, gave their publications a very charming feel. Receiving them via US mail also hearkened back to a earlier time.

Jim said...

Well done

Nick Caputo said...

Thank you, Jim.

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The Seditionist said...
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The Seditionist said...

Full disclosure: For reasons too detailed to go into here, I am 1,000% convinced that Objectivism is complete BS. More: It, or the equivalent belief set, has done true, deep harm to society. So, you know, feh to Objectivism and Objectivists.
Which brings me to the Captain Atom pin up. It raises a huge question: How is Joe Gill the creator of the character when Ditko couldn't be the co-creator of Spider-Man because only the artist could be the creator and the only one at that? A writer, per Ditto, couldn't be the creator. So how did Gill, in Ditko's mind do it?

Nick Caputo said...


Ditko has never claimed creator credit on Spider-Man. He has always called it a co-creation with Lee. In the instance of Captain Atom he worked from a complete script written by Gill. He did design the costume but was not involved in the story or plots.