Steve Ditko, one of the most original and distinctive American comic book artists of the 20th century and co-creator of some of the industry’s most legendary characters, died late last month in New York at age 90. As reports of his death spread around the world last night, some of the biggest figures in arts, entertainment and publishing paid their respects through remembrances of the man and his work. Ditko is best known as the artist and visual storyteller who collaborated with writer/editor Stan Lee to create Spider-Man and later Doctor Strange for Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, but those were only highlights in a long career that began in the 1950s and continued to the present day.
Steve Ditko entered the comics field in the 1950s at a time when the business was reeling from accusations of promoting juvenile delinquency, and publishers were facing steep declines in sales. He worked for second-tier companies, honing his skills drawing crime and horror comics popular at the time. In the late 1950s, his work started to appear in titles likeÂ Strange Tales andÂ Tales of Suspense,Â published by a firm called Atlas, which was soon to change its name to Marvel Comics. There he began a collaboration with the company’s editor, Stan Lee, who gravitated to Ditko’s unusual, grotesque, claustrophobic style, and ended up featuring him in a new title calledÂ Amazing Adult Fantasy.Â The title was shortened toÂ Amazing Fantasy for the final issue, which Lee and Ditko used to showcase the latest in Marvel’s new line of superheroes, an offbeat concept calledÂ Spider-Man.
The true origins of the character Spider-Man are murky and contested, but it is indisputable that Ditko designed the classic costume that has endured nearly unchanged down to the present day. He also immediately stamped his indelible look on the cast of characters that includes Peter Parker, his Aunt May, the irascible editor J. Jonah Jameson, and a long list of memorable villains includingÂ The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, The Lizard and the Vulture. Because the work was work-for-hire, Ditko never received financial compensation for his contributions to creating intellectual property now worth many millions of dollars.
Following their success on Spider-Man, Ditko worked with Lee to create another keystone of the early Marvel universe, Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts. Once again, Ditko’s creepy and surreal art style was pivotal to the success of the concept and the popularity of the series. The art he created during this era is recognized and highly-valued as some of the best work ever done in the medium. Whereas Marvel’s other visual genius, Jack Kirby, worked in bold strokes and dramatic layouts, Ditko used subtleties of posture, expression and hand gesture to express emotions – often fear and anxiety – while filling his pages with masterful, controlled detail and meticulous graphic design.
Ditko became increasingly dissatisfied with conditions at Marvel in the mid-1960s, where artists were expected to carry a large portion of the storytelling in their work, expounding on threadbare plots, then returning the pages so the writer – usually Lee – could add dialogue. He left abruptly in 1965 after 38 groundbreaking issues ofÂ The Amazing Spider-Man and an epic run onÂ Doctor Strange that saw a single story continued over more than a dozen issues.
Ditko moved on to other projects, including developing some heroic characters at rival publishers Charlton (The Question, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and others) and DC (The Creeper, The Hawk and the Dove), as well as some more personal work that grew out of his increasing fascination with political philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand’s strong ideas on economics, morality and justice came to dominate his worldview and manifested in the unforgiving quality of his protagonists and long chunks of abstract, expository text in his stories. Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons keyed off the characters, voice and visual style he used in this period for their postmodern deconstruction of the superhero genre,Â Watchmen, in the mid-1980.
Ditko continued to work in the comics industry through the 1990s, doing work likeÂ StalkerÂ andÂ Shade the Changing ManÂ at DC and even assorted projects at Marvel, where he had returned to the fold as a freelancer. One of the incidental characters he created in this period, “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” has gone on to greater things in the hands of contemporary creative teams. By then, his art style, mostly unchanged since the glory days ofÂ Spider-Man, looked odd and out of step with current trends in comics. His most inspired work were his self-published stories, still heavily influenced by Randian philosophy and full of didactic text, but visually stunning as he pared his drawing down to simple lines and shapes. Most of this was published as 80- or 160-page “packages,” and distributed by his longtime associate, Robin Synder.
Despite being one of the first comic artists to earn a fan following for his work, Ditko decided early on that he didn’t care much for fan culture or the attention of strangers. He attended one convention – the first New York Comic Con in 1964, held in a hotel basement – and never appeared at another one again. He was known to be courteous and even friendly to those who took the trouble to track him down at the midtown New York studio where he continued to work almost until his dying days, but he rarely gave interviews and declined any opportunity to comment in the press. Several books and films, in addition to numerous feature stories, were done on his life and work, all without his participation and occasionally with his active opposition.
Ditko, who never married, was known to be formal and professional in his interactions, although even admirers and close associates sometimes found his rigid personal code difficult to navigate. Stories are rampant of Ditko cutting off communication or ceasing work on a project over a single perceived slight or breach of his standards. This contributed to his reputation as a cranky recluse or political extremist, when in fact he appeared to simply be a private person who preferred to conduct business on his own terms and let his work speak for itself.
At age 90, Ditko was one of the last of the early generation of American comic creators, and certainly one of the most significant creative figures in the evolution of the artform. His contributions to art, popular culture and our collective mythology are immeasurable, and his influence continues to be felt as the DNA of his creations spreads to film, television, digital media and beyond.