Amazing Spider-Man #31 cover

Remembering Steve Ditko's work on the greatest Spider-Man story of all time

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Jul 9, 2018, 12:00 PM EDT

The comics world has spent the past few days remembering the life and work of the great Steve Ditko, one of the most important creators in the history of superhero comics. Ditko, who was as memorable for his fiercely independent streak and reclusiveness as he was for creating Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, was reported dead on Friday, July 6, by the New York Police Department. Comics creators and fans alike took to social media to share their favorite memories of Ditko's work and to lament the passing of a legend.

Because he spent the past several decades avoiding publicity, Ditko's public profile never rose to the heights of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Marvel's best-known visionaries. For those who did know his legacy, Ditko, Lee, and Kirby formed a kind of Holy Trinity of the Marvel Age, as each contributed key elements of a universe that now dominates the box office as well as a significant portion of the comics world. But Ditko never seemed concerned with the explosion of superhero media beyond his own stories. Lee, ever the merry evangelist, embraced the superhero movie boom and continues to contribute his trademark MCU cameos well into his 90s. Kirby died in 1994 at the age of 76, nearly two decades before The Avengers finally made it to the screen. Ditko, for his part, just preferred to stay home and draw, sometimes contributing work-for-hire stories and characters, sometimes preferring to create his own independent comics.

So, since Ditko himself was never going to grace the stage of a convention or a red carpet at a movie premiere to talk about his greatest contributions to comics, we have to do it for him.

If you love Spider-Man, Marvel Comics, or just superhero stories in general, it's important that you know: Steve Ditko isn't just the co-creator of Spider-Man. He's also the reason we have the greatest Spider-Man story ever told.

Amazing Spider-Man #31 cover

In the more than five decades since Spider-Man made his debut, the web-slinging wall-crawler has been a dominant force in the pages of Marvel Comics, headlining multiple series and stealing scenes in various team-up stories. Just this year Amazing Spider-Man became the first Marvel series ever to reach 800 issues, and it's far from the only long-running Spidey title. Despite that, though many have come close, no Spider-Man story in all those pages has been able to top "If This Be My Destiny...!", a three-part story by Ditko and Lee published in The Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 in 1965.

The story came near the end of Lee and Ditko's run together on Amazing Spider-Man, and Lee has spoken openly in the past about how much creative control Ditko exercised over the stories in those later issues. The two worked the "Marvel Method," meaning a plot was discussed, then the art was drawn, and then the dialogue was added to the finished art, which gave Ditko a lot of freedom to determine pacing and action. For this story, he's given credit on each title page for the plot, while Lee is credited with scripting, to make it clear that Ditko was driving the major beats of the narrative. And it's a hell of a narrative.

Peter Parker is the ultimate Superhero with Problems, and nowhere is that better exemplified than this story, which combines all of the Spider-Man elements fans came to love into a tense, emotional, thrilling package that reads just as urgently now as it did decades ago. "If This Be My Destiny...!" could be a Spider-Man movie tomorrow if the right screenwriter tackled the adaptation. It begins with a new villain called The Master Planner — so named because he seems to have always thought of everything, even Spider-Man — sending his henchmen to steal various kinds of scientific equipment. Spider-Man has a run-in with these henchmen and begins to investigate, but Peter Parker has bigger problems. Just as he's about to start his first day of college at Empire State University, his beloved Aunt May falls ill. Peter's so distracted by this that he basically sleepwalks through school, which new classmates Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy (in their respective first appearances) take as arrogance. When Aunt May ends up in the hospital, Peter discovers that she's dying due to radiation in her blood thanks to a transfusion she received from him, which means he's soon going to be responsible for her death as well as his Uncle Ben's. Racing against time, Peter must scrape together enough money to get a special serum to save Aunt May, and he has to go through the Master Planner (really Doctor Octopus in a new underwater lair) to do it, all the while exhausted and beaten down from trying to juggle school, work, superheroics, and Aunt May's health.

Throwing every possible hardship at Peter Parker at the worst possible time and watching him fight his way out of it is a hallmark of many great Spider-Man stories, but this is the story that set the bar. The first issue leads off with an action sequence that could easily launch any superhero blockbuster today, then transitions into Peter's personal problems, then sets up the big reveal that Aunt May is dying. The second issue is full-on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in its tone, as Peter descends into a rage over his circumstances, pushing his exhausted body well past its limits.

Amazing Spider-Man #32 anger

Then comes that third issue, which includes perhaps the most famous sequence of Spider-Man pages ever drawn.

During his fight with Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man wreaks such havoc that he destroys the support beams in the underwater lab. A huge chunk of machinery comes crashing down on him, and the room begins to flood. Trapped, exhausted, and desperate, Peter thinks of Aunt May and Uncle Ben and summons every last reserve of strength he has. This is where Ditko's genius for pacing, emotive posing, and building and releasing tension made the issue a masterpiece.

The story goes that Ditko and Lee had discussed the moment when Spider-Man has to push the rubble off himself, but Lee didn't know that Ditko would stretch the sequence out over four agonizing pages. Somehow, even though Peter is masked the entire time, you feel every bit of his fear, his rage, and his hopelessness, and then you feel all of that release as he realizes he can get free. Go back and read this issue (it's on Marvel Unlimited) and you'll see Ditko playing with his panels, making them gradually larger as he builds to a single, full-page statement of triumph.

Amazing Spider-Man #33 big panel

So many classic comic book stories serve as a template for more sophisticated stories that followed. You can look at many Golden and Silver Age stories and find better, more complex versions of them in the Bronze Age and beyond because the medium progressed and the creators got more ambitious. Not this time. There are dozens of stories attempting to do what "If This Be My Destiny...!" does — including, briefly, Spider-Man: Homecoming — and many of them are great. Many of them are masterpieces, but none ever quite reach the level of simple brilliance achieved in these three issues.

That brilliance was all Steve Ditko.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.