The name Steve Ditko probably means very little to you if you aren’t a comics fan, but if you are, then the name is well known to you: Steve Ditko is the co-creator of Spider-Man, the original artist who envisioned the character along with Stan Lee. The worldwide smash of the Spiderman film franchise saw many Ditko-drawn Spider-Man classics republished and a concurrent growing fascination with the reclusive artist, who is still working in New York, at age 85.
Aside from Spider-Man, Ditko was also the co-creator, again with Lee, of the cosmic Dr. Strange, who was my favorite comic book hero as a child. The comic panels of Dr. Strange were some of the most vividly psychedelic ever seen in comics, and they contrasted sharply with his rendering of Peter Parker’s drab world, which was almost Soviet in comparison.
In the mid-60s, Ditko began to chafe at Stan Lee’s dictatorial editorship of Spider-Man and eventually got Lee to agree to let him plot Spider-Man—unheard of at Marvel—while control freak Lee would write the actual dialogue suggested from Ditko’s stories. The arrangement did not last long. Spider-Man as originally written was very much a conflicted character as we all know, but the character also had a lot of anti-establishment appeal—he was a smartass—and this is one of the many reasons the character took off in the heady era of the ‘60s. At the time that Ditko’s grasp on Spider-Man tightened, so did his interest grow in the Objectivist philosophy of Russian-born novelist, Ayn Rand. When Rand’s humorless black and white moralizing started creeping into the Spider-Man stories, Lee balked and soon the two men were not speaking to each other. Eventually Ditko left, leaving behind a character that would go on to become a billion dollar enterprise. He would never draw Spider-Man again and has essentially erased himself as much as possible from the character’s history.
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that Ditko sees himself as a real-life “Howard Roark,” Rand’s fictional architect in The Fountainhead, a man who refuses to compromise his vision. Rand’s influence was even more obvious in his right wing vigilante character Mr A, who would throw someone off a building for disagreeing with him. His work became didactic, shrill, hectoring and rightwing his influence waned. Mr. A was like Bill O’Reilly as a superhero. What teenager wants to be yelled at by a moralistic superhero? In the opinion of many, his work degenerated into fascistic rhetoric and lunacy from the late 1960s onwards.
There have been almost no interviews, ever, with Steve Ditko. While really not a hermit or a recluse, he’s an intensely private person and refuses all interviews, although there are stories of him speaking to a fan ballsy enough to ring his doorbell, but always standing in the doorway, never inviting them into his studio. In his BBC documentary In Search of Steve Ditko, otaku British talkshow host Jonathan Ross tracked Ditko down in New York City and called the artist on the telephone. Ditko politely refused his request for an on camera interview. But when Ross (and Neil Gaiman) showed up on his doorstep, he did in fact entertain them, although not on camera.
Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, a coffeetable book published by Fantagraphics, is a wonderful and fascinating look at Ditko’s life and work. Kudos to Bell for putting together such a volume which was clearly a labor of love and unique erudition. I can’t imagine how much shit he had to go through to be able to put together such a book. I’m sure Steve Ditko was no help!
Below, Jonathan Ross’s wonderful BBC documentary Searching for Steve Ditko: