by Mike Slade, Founder of Uncanny Nerd
Only within the last few days has it been announced that legendary comic artist Steve Ditko has passed away.
He was one of the most significant creators in comic history, but even more, one of the most intriguing personas across any creative medium.
Little is known of his personal life. Mr. Ditko is not known to have ever married and the prevailing thought is that he had no survivors. No children. No family. Many fans didn’t even realize Steve was still alive in 2018 at 90 years old. The key point of Steve Ditko’s story is that for 50+ years, he never sought public adulation or interaction. He wanted credit for his creations, but it wasn’t for a want of fame. This lead to the odd circumstances of the discovery of his death, where he was found alone in his apartment after what experts believe was two full days from the time he died.
He died as he lived, alone and reclusive.
Stephen J. Ditko was born November 2, 1927 in Jonestown, Pennsylvania and in 1945 joined the U.S. Army where we served as a cartoonist for a military newspaper. At the time, he was already a comic fan and appreciated the craft of creating, especially admiring Batman artist Jerry Robinson. It was Robinson himself who took Ditko under his wing for two years in art school, where Steve was introduced to publishers and creators from across the industry including his first meeting with Stan Lee in 1951.
Steve Ditko began working professionally in comics as an illustrator in 1953, and soon found himself as an inker for comic legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. By 1954, Ditko had regular work as a penciler, drawing for various comic publishers of the day until later in the same year he contracted tuberculosis and was forced to take a hiatus, returning from New York City to his parent’s home in Jonestown.
In late 1955, Ditko returned to New York City and began working with Stan Lee and company at Atlas Comics, which would a few years later morph into what is now Marvel comics.
Though there are conflicting reports on the minutia, the broad story for the creation of Spider-Man in 1962 goes something like this.
Jack Kirby had an idea for a spider themed character (who got their powers from a ring).
Stan Lee liked the pitch, got approval to run with the story and had Jack do some initial art. Stan, not happy with the direction or feeling of the book, asked Steve Ditko to instead come up with some ideas and drawings.
It was Steve who first gave Spidey a mask (hiding his true, boyish identity), as well as the now iconic webbed red and blue costume. Steve reasoned that the hero shouldn’t wear shoes or any other articles of clothing that could get in the way of him using his primary powers, and it was Steve who developed the web-shooters (over Jack’s original thought of a web shooting gun). Pretty much everything that makes Spider-Man who he is, came from Steve Ditko as he worked out how the character should be drawn.
Stan Lee’s decision to not use Jack Kirby’s complete original design may have been one of the best moves ever made in comics, and his eye as an editor can never be questioned, but it should be very clear that it was Steve Ditko who created and designed basically every facet of the character we know as Spider-Man, though Steve himself even said that it’s impossible to give one person credit for creating Spider-Man, it truly was all three of them (Lee, Kirby, and Ditko) working together.
More than just Spider-Man, Steve Ditko was responsible for the creation of nearly every other primary actor in the Spidey franchise. Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Chameleon, Electro, Mysterio, Harry and Norman Osborn, Sandman, Lizard, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane, Kraven… all of them and so much more were creations of Ditko.
Beyond the web-head, Steve Ditko also created Dr. Strange and a number of his supporting cast, such as Wong, Baron Mordo, Dormammu, and even Eternity!
His famous creations do not stay with Marvel Comics though. Over in DC, he created Hawk and Dove, Starman, Creeper, Captain Atom and more.
One character few people ever remember Steve helped create who has actually seen a resurgence in the last decade is Squirrel Girl, who debuted in 1991’s Marvel Super-Heroes vol.2 #8.
So what happened anyway?
Why is it then, that Steve Ditko’s name is usually not on the same tier in conversations about the legends? We hear about Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in these conversations all the time, but why is Ditko, when mentioned, almost like a footer? After all, the creation of the infamous “Marvel Method” was because of Stan Lee’s work with both Ditko and Kirby.
It all comes back to recognition and pride apparently.
While Stan Lee was front and center of Marvel fame, welcoming the spotlight, there were (allegedly, I wasn’t there) just one too many instances of Stan claiming how HE did this, and HE did that. Stan created Spider-Man, and Stan had these ideas.
It wasn’t the fame that Steve Ditko wanted. He was happy allowing Stan to be the face of Marvel comics, as long as Steve was properly credited for his work. But this was a reoccurring problem between them. Heck, it wasn’t until Spider-Man #25 in June 1965, after Steve demanded it, that he was even given any plot credits in the Spider-Man books. After only another year, in 1966, their relationship ended and Steve stopped working for Marvel. Some cite Steve as quitting, others say he was fired and there are dozens or articles and books written on the two dynamic forces if you want to dive in to the story more, but really, all that matters is after issue #38 of Spider-Man, Steve Ditko was gone. Kirby stayed on just four more years, exiting the publisher in 1970 under similarly unfavorable circumstances, leaving Stan Lee as the controller of the publisher’s destiny and last true celebrity creator for years to come.
As the story goes, once they parted ways in the 60s, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko never met or spoke to each other until they met in the Marvel offices in New York nearly 50 years later.
Steve Ditko later in life never asked for any accolades. He allegedly never received or sought monetary compensation for the success of the Spider-Man or Dr. Strange films, though rightfully he should have probably been owed millions.
I remember Steve Ditko as an artist way beyond his time. He was a giant among men who helped to shape an entire culture, and the only fitting way I could think of to close this article, is to simply show off one of the most acclaimed series of panels all time from Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man #33-
Thank you for the memories Mr. Ditko.