If you were to ask a random person on the street, "Who created Spider-Man?", you'd likely hear a reply synonymous with many of Marvel Comics' beloved characters, Stan Lee. But that's only half correct. While it's true Lee provided the initial idea for an ordinary teenager gifted with spider-enhanced superpowers, it was Steve Ditko who was tasked with giving Spider-Man a soul.
After legendary artist Jack Kirby's initial take for the character was rejected (for looking too heroic), Ditko offered up an otherworldly take on the hero, complete with a luchador-inspired, bug-eyed mask and a partially webbed jumpsuit. Ditko's Spider-Man was gaunt, a bit spooky, and seemingly double-jointed — all over displaying what Alan Moore once called a "tormented elegance." On the other hand, Ditko insisted on reality when it came to Peter Parker. Ditko drew the New York teenager as an out-of-place, lonely kid, struggling for acceptance. Peter was studious and square.
Ditko's fluid, oddly compelling art — alongside his inventive and groundbreaking storyboarding — on Amazing Fantasy #15 and on The Amazing Spider-Man (see Amazing Spider-Man #33) provided the basis for a media empire and upended the world of comics.
In late June, the intensively private co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange passed away at his Manhattan apartment at the age of 90. Ditko left the world with a library of writings and illustrations and worked well into his 80s for DC, Marvel, and Pacific and Charlton Comics. Without Ditko, we'd have no Doctor Strange, no Squirrel Girl, no Dormammu or Doctor Octopus. Not to mention some of his odder characters, such as the Creeper, Shade, the Changing Man, Hawk and Dove, the Question, or even Mr. A.
Ditko was notoriously and ferociously private, bordering on urban legend. After a disagreement with Stan Lee over what can best be described as "creative differences," Ditko left Marvel Comics, beginning a life of near seclusion. There are only a handful of Ditko pictures, one known audio recording, and exactly zero videos of the man. When Ditko and Lee's disagreement over who actually deserves credit for creating Spider-Man came to a head in the '90s, the prolific artist and writer famously answered back with a comic entitled "Tsk Tsk" literally illustrating his point.
To remember Steve Ditko and his work, SYFY WIRE caught up with a slew of comic book creators to get their thoughts on Ditko's legacy, his art and the impact of his creations.
Starting with Vertigo runs alongside Neil Gaiman on the Sandman miniseries in the '90s, Chris Bachalo has penciled dozens of comic books over the years, including Ditko creations on The Amazing Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Shade, the Unchanging Man. Bachalo has worked on several other Marvel titles, The Uncanny X-Men, Avengers, Ghost Rider, and Captain America, as well as his own creation, the Steampunk series.
As an illustrator who has worked on three of Steve Ditko creations, can you describe his impact on your life and art?
For me growing up and reading comics in the '70s and '80s, Steve was the example of the artist that you didn't want to be. Guys like Frazetta, Wrightson, Sienkiewicz, Miller, P. Craig Russell, Windsor-Smith, Michael Golden were that guys that were in my wheelhouse, that inspired me. They were new and exciting, and Ditko was the guy with the outdated style, kind of clumsy and stiff. He was the past. I'm not going to pretend that I was mature beyond my years and had an encyclopedic knowledge and reverence for the people that came before me, because I didn't.
The past was yesterday, my world existed in the now, and anything before yesterday didn't mean anything. But fate has a funny way, and when I professionally entered the world of comics it was drawing a book called Shade, The Changing Man, a DC property created by Steve Ditko. That book changed my life. It was weird, and it became really weird, and it was the perfect book for me. But I still didn't appreciate Steve.
It took me a long time to come around an appreciate the people that came before me, that laid the foundation of an industry that I would spend my life working in. Artists like Will Eisner, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby — and Steve Ditko.
I worked on Spider-Man and more recently I re-imagined Doctor Strange with Jason Aaron and I learned to appreciate Steve. I love the way he draws Spider-Man and I still think its the best-designed superhero costume ever — with Doctor Strange a close second. And It wasn't until I was researching Doctor Strange that I took a close look at Steve's work and discovered the broadness of his imagination, his creativity, how weird he was, how unique he was, his appreciation for storytelling, how hard he worked on his pages and a light went off for me. It was like, oh, yeah, I finally get it. That's why that artist with the clumsy, stiff, wonderful style was so special.
About two weeks before Steve passed, I found myself working on an issue of Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man and was reviewing the script. I was thinking about how to visually open the story and it occurred to me that it might be really effective to actually use a sample of Steve's work in the opening. I ran the idea past my editor, Nick Lowe and we're going to do it. Fate has a funny way of working out.
Erica Henderson's fun cartoon style has earned her two Eisner awards for both Jughead and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, another Ditko creation. A convert from the video game industry, Henderson is a jill of all trades, getting her start in the video game industry as an illustrator. She has worked on Venture Brothers and other indie comics creations as well.
What kind of influence did Steve Ditko's art have on you?
I have to acknowledge Ditko's greatest contribution to my life and career and that's Squirrel Girl. I literally owe my career to a character that Steve Ditko created and I won't soon forget that. An amazing thing about Steve Ditko was that he was creating until the very end. The man lived until the age of 90 and he was still making stories. I have a lot of admiration for that. Drawing is really all I ever want to do and it's good to know that one is able to do it literally forever.
After getting his start at Marvel and DC Comics, drawing The Incredible Hulk and Batman respectively, McFarlane began his run on The Amazing Spider-Man on issue 298. He quickly gained notoriety for his iteration of Spider-Man, eyes enlarged, beset with meticulously detailed webs. McFarlane is also the creator of Spawn, co-founder of Image Comics, and owner of McFarlane Toys.
How did Ditko's Spider-Man figure into your interpretation of the character?
To me the definitive Spider-Man was John Romita Sr. You saw his work on sticker books, the cartoons, and the pajamas I had when I was a kid. To me, that version was the Norman Rockwell version of the character and it was perfect. But, I've always said that you never want to be the guy to imitate someone like that. No matter how good you get, you'll always be a Norman Rockwell imitator.
For me, when I took over Spider-Man, I looked at Romita and thought "Wow, I'd be a fool to try and do a bad version of that." As a young artist, I wanted to also set myself apart from the crowd and I thought I needed to tackle it from a different angle.
I was too young to remember when he first came out so I first saw Ditko's stuff in the Marvel Tales reprints and it was funky. There was this imperfection that had a quirky, odd, and interesting feel to it. I thought, what if I channel Ditko, take that, for lack of a better word, quirkiness and put it into a '90s style with a lot of lines and detail like people like Jim Lee and Mark Silvestri were doing. I also wanted that big, flamboyant style Perez is famous for.
Everything I did from the costume to the webs, I pushed it to the extreme with Ditko's poses. I don't think Ditko was concerned with anatomy and I wasn't either. Whereas Ditko's Spider-Man seemed to be double-jointed I wanted to make him quadruple-jointed.
When I started I didn't go back and study all of his work though, I worked off what was already in my brain from his work. I seem to remember his costume being a darker blue, and it's probably not true but that's the way it was in my brain. That was part of my romance with Ditko, I just took the parts I thought were cool, especially the webs. I thought it was a shame those were lost through the years and I wanted to bring them back.
I never met him but I think it says a lot when people you've never met can have such a big influence on you and your work.
Looking back on Ditko's career, are there any lessons to be learned?
Ditko was prolific and he wrote stories like he drew them. He wasn't interested in the typical boy meets girls stories. Again, like in his art, there was an oddness. His work in some way reflected his personality and that's somewhat common in the comics world. Just look at Jack Kirby, he drew big and he wrote enormous stories. Ditko was the same way.
Steve Ditko helped start a whole brand of superheros and arguably the icon of Marvel Comics. When I worked there Spider-Man was on their letterhead, their reports even on the walls. They chose to make Spider-Man their mascot and Ditko will always have that legacy. Creatively, I think that's what we all want, impact past our lives.
Initially brought in as a short-term substitute for John Romita, Ron Frenz impressed Marvel editors enough to begin his own run of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1984, a few years after joining in 1980. Along with writer Tom DeFalco, they revealed that Peter's costume was actually an alien symbiote. In 2002, Spider-Man editor Jim Owsley praised Frenz as "a huge Spidey fan, who was doing a hip Ditko-meets-Romita style."
What does Spider-Man mean to you?
Spider-Man is the ultimate "everyman" character. Anyone can relate to Peter Parker and his trials. That includes me. I studied Mr. Ditko's work primarily to learn everything I could about how Pete moved and gestured and even stood. I also happened to learn about the simple power of incredibly clear visual storytelling and it's value to effectively communicating with your audience.
What lessons can you draw from Steve Ditko's career in comics?
As near as I can tell, Mr. Ditko's career is a testament to fidelity to one's personal philosophy and ethics. I can only hope we can all learn from that.
Did you ever meet Steve?
I met Mr. Ditko briefly years ago in the Marvel office of Archie Goodwin who introduced me to Mr. Ditko, with a smiling "Ron's drawing Amazing Spider-Man! They're making him draw like you!" to which Mr. Ditko calmly replied as he shook my hand, "Shame on them." I stuttered something about nobody "making" me do anything and that was pretty much it. My fondest memories of Mr. Ditko, like most of us, are based in his work. I think he would prefer that. At least, I hope so. I sincerely hope Mr. Ditko has finally found a reward he feels he can accept.
After getting her start on The Simpsons comics, Gail Simone jumped in head first at Marvel as a writer for Deadpool. At DC though, she's been prolific, most known for her massive run on Birds of Prey and Villains United. She's written on Batgirl, The Atom, Secret Six, and Wonder Woman. Simone recently returned to Marvel as a writer on the new Domino series.
From a creator's point of view, how big a deal is the character of Spider-Man?
It's hard to be in comics and to overestimate the impact of Spider-man, regardless of what kind of work you do. There are a few characters that the entire supply system is based on, and Spidey is clearly one of those. But beyond that, I think it's probably the first time that an underdog superhero actually felt real. I think people loved Spider-man because they cared what happened to Peter Parker.
And it's a true fact that if you work in superhero comics, at some point, you have tried to create your own Spider-Man, your own downtrodden-yet-joyful teen hero. No one's yet come close, really.
What kind of influence did Steve Ditko's art have on you?
When I was a kid, I much preferred the look of the DC characters. There was something spooky about especially the early Marvel artists. Jack Kirby drew these weird behemoths and Ditko these odd, trembly characters. I didn't get it.
As I grew up and read comics from around the world, I really came to appreciate the skill of these guys... in particular, no one drew desperation like Ditko. I've said it before, but even in his superhero stories, he was at his best when they were overmatched and afraid, when they were most human.
I love that, and it happens all the time in my work, that I want the artist to convey a Ditko-level of anxiety and suspense.
Ditko had a long, strange career as an artist and writer. Are there any lessons to take away from his business life?
As a personal matter, Ditko's career is an important lesson, that it's better to walk away than to be unhappy, better to follow your own path than to walk a path you don't believe you. Steve and I probably would have disagreed on everything under the sun politically, but a lot of what I feel good comics are about came directly from him.
I know he was a bit of a recluse, but did you ever run into Ditko or speak with him?
I never did have that honor. But it's interesting, how many times I keep writing his characters; the Stalker, the Question, Spider-Man, they keep popping up, and it makes me happy. I hope he would have been glad to know how beloved these characters are by every generation of comics creators and readers. It's a gorgeous legacy made up of weird characters with hysterical laughter and wrinkled suits in the rain. There isn't anyone else quite like him.
British illustrator and designer Adi Granov blew fans' minds when he released Iron Man: Extremis along with Warren Ellis. Since then he's expanded his role at Marvel, serving as a designer and illustrator on the Iron Man films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Avengers. His comic book work includes dozens of variant covers as well as issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men Unlimited, and Captain America.
How meaningful is Ditko's work on Amazing Spider-Man?
He's arguably the most recognizable hero of all, especially in the classic Ditko depiction. He got it so right straight away, probably more so than any other character I could think of.
What kind of lessons can be gleaned from Ditko's career?
Oh boy, that's a loaded question! The simple answer to that is that I'd want to do most things in my career in the opposite way of how he seems to have done it, but I have massive respect for that kind of stubborn adherence to one's principles.
It's an end of an era for certain. By this point almost more of a myth than a real person, there was always this status-quo with the knowledge that Ditko was out there. This uncertainty which added to the legend. Sadly that era is over, and while his legend will live on, it feels a book has closed.
A prolific writer and illustrator, Walt Simonson was a true student of the comic golden age gods like Kirby and Lee, spiked with the Loony Tunes-esque sense of humor. If you liked Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, you'd do well and go back and read Simonson's epic run on the comic in the 1980s. Elements from the blockbuster such as Hela's torment of Thor and even Surtur's assault on Asgard come directly from the run.
Can you talk about seeing Ditko's work on Amazing Spider-Man or Doctor Strange for the first time?
I didn't really see Steve's work till I was about 19. I may have read some of it earlier but I was unaware of it when I was a kid. I discovered Spider-Man and Doctor Strange once I was in college in the mid-1960s. Loved them both. Spidey was one of my favorite Marvel characters once I began reading the company's comics regularly.
And I was a Doctor Strange fan as well I thought, and still think, that Steve's graphic solutions for depicting magic in a comic book were brilliant. When I drew an issue of Dr. Fate for DC in their First Issue Special comic in 1975, I deliberately set out to try to create a graphic system of magic based on typography, inspired by but trying to be different from, Steve's work.
What kind of influence did Steve Ditko's art have on your style?
A lot of my early figure work, pre-professional really, was inspired by Steve's work. I was mixing it in with Kirby and other Marvel artists, but in some of my particularly early work, I can still see something of Steve's influence in my figurative drawing.
Is there a lesson to learn from Steve Ditko's career in comic books?
Go your own way.
I know he was a bit of a recluse, but did you ever get to meet Steve?
I believe I only met Steve once, in the Marvel offices when they were back at 387 Park Avenue South. He was in someone's office, probably Ralph Macchio's. I knew who he was and introduced myself. Got to shake his hand. That was enough.
Nick Bradshaw got his start penciling Army of Darkness comics moving on to DC/Wildstorm where he worked Danger Girl and the creator-owned Rokkin. In 2010, Bradshaw joined Wolverine & The X-Men with Jason Aaron. More recently, his work can be seen in the pages of Guardians of the Galaxy.
What do Doctor Strange and Spider-Man, the most famous of Ditko's creations, mean to you?
I grew up on Spider-Man. He was always my go to. I could relate to Peter Parker. His villains were colorful and you could just tell when he was adventuring as Spiderman that it was a time he could step outside from himself and his troubles of the day. As much as he respected the responsibility after tragedy, teenage Peter needed Spiderman to learn confidence and grow up. Those Ditko issues really show that off. He used a beautiful minimalistic style that just hit that mark. I still flip through those stories every time I draw Spidey. Didn't read much of his Doctor strange work but did read a ton of the Creeper, Blue Beetle at DC. Still some really great stuff.
What do you think of Ditko's artistic style?
There was a less is more approach. It was all about storytelling. We tend to lean more towards hyper detail these days. Shouldn't forget though the lessons from artists like Ditko that you can detail the hell out of every aspect on a character or scene but storytelling should be King. Still learning those lessons, it's why we reread those old books.
Do you have any Steve Ditko stories?
Never had. Many friends who corresponded via mail with him though. After his passing everyone who got a note seems to be sharing them. Some great stories there. New readers should discover creators like Ditko. Sad we always seem to do this after they pass. Many living legends still working today. Message them up, visit them at conventions. Thank these guys for giving us these wonderful adventures!