Recently, word broke that artist and writer Steve Ditko passed away in his New York home. Ditko was 90 years old, and one of the last titans of the comic book industry. Ditko was most widely known for co-creating Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Stan Lee during the early days of the Marvel Universe. Either of those characters alone would have earned Ditko a place among the all-time greats. But they were far from his only contributions to the medium.
Ditko’s career spanned over six decades, and he introduced several memorable creations who are still vital parts of their respective fictional worlds. Even though Ditko intentionally stayed away from the spotlight, his work remains a major influence for the generations of comic creators who came after him. To celebrate Ditko’s life in comics, SYFY WIRE is taking a look back at some of his most significant comic book contributions and his most unforgettable characters.
In 1960, Ditko and writer Joe Gill created Captain Atom for Charlton Comics. Captain Atom was Ditko’s first enduring character, but far from his last. As conceived by Ditko and Gill, Allen Adam was a military scientist who was accidentally “atomized” before reforming his body with superhuman nuclear powers.
If that sounds a lot like the origin for Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, it’s because Alan Moore specifically based the characters in that book on the Charlton Comics heroes. Captain Atom headlined his own comic series for Charlton, and later for DC Comics as well. Captain Atom was even a primary member of the Justice League during the ‘90s, at the peak of his popularity.
Ditko was not Stan Lee’s first choice as the artist for Spider-Man. Instead, Lee originally approached his longtime collaborator, Jack Kirby. However, Lee wasn’t satisfied by Kirby’s take on the character and went to Ditko instead. From there, Ditko designed the now-famous Spider-Man costume, including his web-shooters and mask. In 1962, Lee and Ditko debuted Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15 before reteaming for the first 38 issues of Amazing Spider-Man.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Ditko was actively involved with the plotting of the series. Ditko asked for co-plotting credit on Amazing Spider-Man, and he received it. He also co-created many of Spider-Man’s most memorable villains, including Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, Electro, and Scorpion. Ditko and Lee also introduced Spider-Man’s supporting cast and made Peter Parker a hero whose personal struggles made him even more relatable to a new generation of readers.
In 1963, Ditko and Lee once again worked their magic on Doctor Strange. This time it was Ditko who came up with the concept and character, which he subsequently brought to Lee. Together, they introduced Doctor Strange in the pages of Strange Tales. From there, Ditko’s surreal art and stories charted unexplored territory within the Marvel Universe and introduced bizarre new worlds and dimensions to readers.
Doctor Strange’s adventures were sometimes challenging to follow, and they could even be described as “hallucinogenic.” Ditko eventually took over as the sole plotter of Strange’s stories, and he established an unconventional tone that few subsequent creators have been able to match.
Ditko returned to Charlton Comics in 1966 and created the second Blue Beetle as a backup story in Captain Atom #83. As envisioned by Ditko, Ted Kord/Blue Beetle shared some traits with Spider-Man, particularly in terms of his athleticism and intellect. However, the Blue Beetle had no powers of his own and relied on his non-lethal weapons, gadgets, and hand-to-hand combat skills to fight crime.
In 1967, Blue Beetle graduated to his own comic series, which ran for five issues. Blue Beetle was among the Charlton heroes who were eventually integrated into the DC Universe. During the ‘80s, Blue Beetle enjoyed a post-Ditko surge of popularity as a member of the Justice League and the frequent partner of Booster Gold.
Outside of Ditko’s most fervent admirers, Mr. A isn’t widely known by the vast majority of comic book fans. But this hero was one of the few characters that Ditko created and managed to retain full control and ownership of. Mr. A was clearly important to him. In 1967, Ditko debuted Mr. A in the pages of Witzend, an underground comic published by Wallace Wood. Mr. A may look like an ordinary comic book vigilante, but he was also an ardent follower of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, just like Ditko himself. Essentially, it was a way for Ditko to express those beliefs within the context of his superhero stories.
Like Superman, Mr. A/Rex Graine was secretly a crusading newspaper reporter who confronted criminals during his day job and actively pursued them in costume. Mr. A didn’t really see shades of gray in anything or anyone. Everyone was either good or evil, with no exceptions. Ditko didn’t even bother to give Mr. A a conventional origin story. It was almost as if Rex was always Mr. A, even when he didn’t wear the mask.
Ditko has described the Question as a more “acceptable” version of Mr. A, although both heroes follow Objectivism and they became known for their ruthless methods of crime fighting. Vic Sage/the Question made his debut in 1967 as a backup feature in Charlton’s Blue Beetle #1. The Question’s costume was similar to Mr. A’s appearance, although the Question’s mask made his face appear to be featureless. Both characters were investigative journalists, although later creators were given the opportunity to further flesh out the Question’s philosophy and personality. And as noted above, Alan Moore used the Question as the inspiration for Rorschach in Watchmen.
Between Spider-Man, Mr. A, and the Question, it sure seems like Ditko enjoyed creating protagonists who worked in the news industry. The Creeper continued that trend with his alter ego, Jack Ryder, a TV talk show host who was given enhanced strength, agility, and healing abilities. The Creeper’s powers also gave him a very Joker-like appearance, and he’s gone up against Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime more than a few times.
Ditko created the Creeper for Showcase #73 in 1968, before staying with the character’s short-lived series for six issues. Around the same time, Ditko made another lasting contribution to DC Comics.
Hawk and Dove
In Showcase #75, Ditko and co-creator Steve Skeates introduced Hawk and Dove, a crime-fighting pair of brothers named Hank and Don Hall. These characters were conceived in the late ‘60s, and Hank was meant to represent a conservative and hawkish attitude toward evil while Don was liberal, more passive, and more introspective about their approach as a team. Ditko and Skeates briefly teamed up for The Hawk and the Dove series, but both creators left the book fairly quickly.
Hawk and Dove remained supporting players in the DC Universe and even received a new comic series once Don was killed off and replaced by a woman named Dawn Granger. Both Hank and Dawn will be featured as Hawk and Dove in the upcoming Titans live-action series for the DC Universe streaming service.
Shade, the Changing Man
In 1977, Ditko returned to DC Comics and created Shade, the Changing Man, which followed the titular alien fugitive as he made a life for himself on Earth as a superhero. Shade was empowered by alien technology that could seemingly alter his physical appearance depending on his mental state or the frame of mind of anyone he encountered while wearing his M-Vest.
Once again, Ditko only stayed with the comic for a few issues before he departed. However, subsequent creators have completely revamped Shade for Vertigo and Young Animal comic lines. The most recent reboot was actually retitled Shade, the Changing Woman, as it followed a young female alien who admired the original Shade.
Ditko made periodic returns to Marvel, but in 1988 he revisited some familiar territory when he and Tom DeFalco co-created the fun-loving teenage superhero known as Speedball. Basically, Speedball’s powers allow him to absorb kinetic energy and send him literally bouncing off of walls and any other solid objects. Ditko stayed with the Speedball ongoing series for 10 issues before departing, but the character went on to be a major part of the New Warriors and had a major presence in Marvel’s comic book world for over two decades before sinking back into relative obscurity.
Ironically, Squirrel Girl’s recent surge of popularity came decades after her introduction. But Ditko and writer Will Murray created Squirrel Girl in 1991 as a throwback to lighthearted superhero comics. Squirrel Girl made her debut in Marvel Super-Heroes Winter Special, where she helped Iron Man defeat Doctor Doom in her first appearance. It’s become a running gag that Squirrel Girl can defeat almost any villain in the Marvel Universe despite her relatively unremarkable powers. She can talk to squirrels in addition her squirrel-like agility, powerful teeth, enhanced strength and large squirrel tail. That’s all she has, and yet Squirrel Girl has become another breakout character for Marvel.
Squirrel Girl was supposed to be the lead character of a New Warriors live-action series on Freeform, but it was canceled before it came to pass. Regardless, we fully expect that Squirrel Girl will make her MCU debut at some point, and she is still one of Ditko’s most remarkable creations.