Behind the Panel: Steve Ditko
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Credit: SYFY WIRE

Steve Ditko: Comics' ultimate enigma

Contributed by
Nov 5, 2019

This weekend marked what would have been Steve Ditko's 91st birthday.

If you're reading this, then it's likely you don't need me to remind you that Ditko was the titanic talent who created or co-created unforgettable characters such as Doctor Strange, the Creeper, The Question, Hawk and Dove, and of course, Spider-Man. Without him, the Marvel Age of Comics in the 1960s doesn't happen; at least, it doesn't happen in anywhere near as effective or interesting a manner as it turned out.

While we know about certain details in Ditko's life, like how he walked away from Spider-Man after just 38 issues due to his rapidly deteriorating partnership with Stan Lee, his battle with tuberculosis in the 1950s and that he was a noted follower of Objectivist principles championed by Ayn Rand, we really don't know very much about the personal side of Ditko, who died last year.

It is astounding to me that one of the all-time great creators in comics remains shrouded in such mystery. And upon further review, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Credit: Archival

I spent two decades in television news, so my default is always to know and learn as much as possible about a subject. I first read the Ditko-Lee Spidey stories in Marvel Tales reprints. Like so many others, Ditko's work on Spider-Man affected me deeply because I could see so much of myself in Peter Parker and his ongoing struggles — not with his Rogues' Gallery, but with everyday life: stressing over the endless financial pressure of a mountain of bills, the health of ever-fragile Aunt May, and his disastrous social standing in high school. Over the years, I've revisited those magical 38 issues countless times at different intervals in my life (my well-worn first edition of the Marvel Masterworks Spider-Man is proof of these re-reads). Each time, the themes in those stories hit me in a different way. Ditko's idiosyncratic art combined with Lee's heartfelt dialogue created a universal language that we all could understand and relate to. Whether you were a streetwise kid in the New York City, a farmboy in the Midwest or a Cuban kid in Miami, you knew who Peter Parker was. Because in our own way, we were all Peter Parker.

photo: Mike Avila

Comic book fans are incredibly fortunate to enjoy the type of access we have to our heroes. We get to meet the legends and A-listers of the industry any given weekend if we hit the Con circuit. We get to hear them go into detail about their work and share 'war stories' on panels, podcasts and countless websites. While the lucrative convention market has brought TV and film stars closer to their fans, there is no corner of pop culture with a more intimate connection between creator and fan than comics.

But Ditko never had any interest in that. He made his first convention appearance back in 1964 and he never attended another one.

He also wouldn't cooperate with biographers like Blake Bell, whose Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is a fascinating read. In fact, he didn't do any interviews at all after 1968. His aversion to reporters' inquiries is somewhat ironic, considering that several of his superhero characters, like The Question and Mr. A, were journalists in their civilian identities.

Over time, Ditko's reclusiveness became legendary, if somewhat inaccurate. He wasn't actually hiding from people — he just wasn't out there seeking attention. Nevertheless, his reputation as the J.D. Salinger of comics only grew with time. So did the rumors, like how he reportedly used Silver Age original art pages, worth thousands of dollars, as a cutting board in his studio.

Courtesy: The Ditko Estate

I always wanted to find out more about what inspired Ditko to bring to life a character like Peter Parker. We never had that chance, because the artist shot down anyone who asked for an interview, and I mean anyone. He turned down his artistic hero Will Eisner when he asked to do a formal interview. When Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Ross appeared at his New York City studio for the 2007 BBC documentary In Search of Steve Ditko, he welcomed them into his studio and even gave them some comics … but would not talk on camera. Well into his eighth decade, he was still insistent that his work speak for itself. Indeed, his self-published works, featuring stories laced with commentary and Ditko's Randian principles, continued until just a few years before his death.

When I saw that documentary, it struck me that this giant of comics was in an office building not far from where I worked. And for several weeks, I debated just showing up and knocking on his door and seeing if the co-creator of Spider-Man would actually talk to me. I ultimately decided not to do it, in part because I realized that just showing up unannounced at an elderly man's workplace would make me a jerk, not a fan. I resigned myself to the fact I would never get to meet this fascinating man who had helped change comics.

With his death, barring the unlikely discovery of soul-baring journals, Steve Ditko left us without a proper ending to perhaps his greatest story: his own. But perhaps that is the wrong way to look at it. Maybe the story of this fascinating, uncompromising artist is meant to be ambiguous, vague and open to interpretation. Maybe that is exactly what comics' most enigmatic figure intended. He let his work speak for itself.

If I'm being honest, I occasionally second-guess myself and wish I had knocked on Steve Ditko's studio door... just so I could have said "Thank you."

I love getting feedback, positive or negative. OK, 'love' may be too strong a word, but I do enjoy hearing from readers. Find me on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook and let me know what you think of the column.

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

Here's your weekly reminder that Behind the Panel is a video and audio series, too. Our video series is chock-full of my in-depth interviews with amazing comic book creators. The Behind the Panel podcast is an audio documentary series that provides unique insight into your favorite creators and stories. Check 'em out, we think you'll enjoy them.

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