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The Comic Book Art & Characters of Steve Ditko
Who is Steve Ditko?
Comic book legend Steve Ditko was born in 1927, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is believed that he is of Eastern European ancestry, but as with many of his life details, this has been difficult to verify. The enigmatic artist studied under early Batman artist Jerry Robinson at New York City's Cartoonists and Illustrators School. He started out doing inks over other artists' pencils at Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's studio in 1953, where Mort Meskin mentored him. During this time, he began developing the basic, yet very kinetic and expressive style that he would become known for.
No one seems to know for sure if Ditko ever married, although he is rumored to have a son. He was always averse to being photographed for publication or to draw attention to himself as a person, as he often stated that he would prefer his work to speak for him. Ditko has long been an adherent of Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy, often inserting his philosophical views into his work, especially in later decades. While colleagues have described him as friendly and engaging, he was also a somewhat private man. He was willing to discuss philosophy in a friendly manner and at length, but he always stuck to his guns.
Ditko did much of his early work for second-tier comic book publishers like Gilmor, Timor and Charlton, with the latter company being his main go-to employer over the next few decades. Early on, Ditko's art was easily recognizable, with a clean, uncluttered style that still managed to be very unqiue and odd. With time, his storytelling skills only improved, and his action sequences would become a model for many other aspiring comic book artists to follow.
Ditko's first comic book work was a sci-fi story for Stanmor's Fantastic Fears title. However, his first published work was a short story which appeared in the first issue of the romance book Daring Love, which was released by Gilmor in 1953. A lot of Ditko's 1950s output would appear in the comics published by the precursor to modern Marvel Comics, Atlas. Just as much work, if not more, found print with the Derby, Connecticut-based Charlton Comics. Charlton was known for having some of the lowest page rates in the business, but they interfered little with their creators' work, something which must've appealed a lot to the individualistic Ditko. While at Charlton, he helped create Captain Atom near the tail-end of the decade.
1960s - Marvel, DC, Charlton
By the early 1960s, Steve Ditko was increasingly finding himself working for Atlas Comics' line of monster and mystery books, under the editorship of Stan Lee, from whose scripts he often worked. By 1962, and thanks largely to the success of the Fantastic Four, Atlas had become Marvel Comics. Ditko, along with Stan Lee, co-created what is his most famous character: The Amazing Spider-Man. Ditko contributed extensively to plotting the Spider-Man stories, besides handling the art. Some may find it difficult to believe that the rigidly ideological artist would've consented to draw a character as "flawed" as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Ditko reportedly didn't see a contradiction, as Parker was "just a kid." Over the years, though, his belief that all true heroes should be driven, unambiguous and "perfect" in an Objectivist sense became more and more visible and inflexible.
During his early-60s tenure at Marvel, Ditko also co-created and drew the mystical character Dr. Strange. Between his trippy Dr. Strange work, his kinetic Spider-Man art and his occasional fill-ins on other titles such as The Hulk, Steve Ditko had become a true fan favorite. However, in 1966, he left Marvel over long-running creative disputes with Stan Lee. He would soon again land at his second-home, Charlton Comics. While there, he helped start the company's late-60s line of "Action Heroes" by coming back to his creation, Captain Atom, as well as creating a new version of an old hero, The Blue Beetle (Ted Kord). He also created a brand new, seemingly Objectivist character, The Question. All of this happened under the editorial leadership of Dick Giordano. Meanwhile, he continued to draw many stories for Charlton's horror, sci-fi and other titles, as well as doing freelance work for Eerie Magazine. In 1967, he created his ultimate Ayn Rand-inspired hero, Mr. A, who looked and acted a lot like The Question. This would not be the only instance of Ditko "cannibalizing" his own work for major publishers for his own personal projects.
In 1968, Ditko began a brief stint at DC Comics, where he was brought by his former Charlton editor Dick Giordano, who had recently moved to DC himself. While at DC, he created The Creeper and The Hawk & The Dove, but left about a year later. The reasons are unclear, but were likely ideological in nature. During this period, he began to increasingly work on idiosyncratic strips for a smattering of indie publications and zines, the most prominent being Wally Wood's Witzend. His work for Charlton Comics continued during this time as well. In the late 60s, Ditko also provided some art for a couple of issues of Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, published by Tower.
1970s & 80s - Legend in The Background
At the beginning of the 70s, and having recently left DC amid another of his bizarre philosophical spats, Ditko once again found himself at Charlton, where he would continue to provide art until the publisher's demise in 1986. With Charlton's "Action Hero" line having been left for dead with Dick Giordano's departure, Ditko stuck mostly to working on the company's horror, sci-fi and western titles. He also did more work for small press and independent publishers during this time. In 1975, Ditko returned for another short stint at DC Comics, where he created the offbeat Shade, The Changing Man, which had its own series from 1977 to 1978. He also drew various short and back-up stories featuring his creation, The Creeper, as well as his own version of Starman. In 1979, Ditko returned to Marvel (now under the editorship of Ditko fan Jim Shooter), albeit on a freelance basis. While there during the 80s, he drew Machine Man, the Micronauts, Captain Universe and ROM: Space Knight.
During the 80s, Ditko also contributed work to publishers such as Eclipse (mainly the character Static, which would also appear at Charlton), Pacific (Missing Man, The Mocker) and Archie Comics' super-hero books (The Fly, The Jaguar). In 1988, he co-created the character Speedball (later known as Penance) for Marvel Comics. Speedball was given his own series shortly after, but fan tastes had moved on from Ditko's 1960s drawing style, which the artist had failed to update in nearly any way since that decade. After ten issues, it was cancelled.
Throughout the decade, Ditko collaborated with editor Robin Snyder, one of the few people the artist has been willing to work with more-or-less permanently. The Snyder-edited Revolver, published by Renegade Press in 1985, featured the Ditko sci-fi character Star Guider. Renegade also published Ditko's World, also edited by Snyder, and which featured Static along with some of his idiosyncratic, ideologically driven strips. Shortly before Charlton Comics' 1986 shutdown, they published the title Charlton Action, which during its two issues featured (who else?) Static, as well as more of his highly personal non-hero work. Not long after, Ditko's long-time fallback and home base closed down its comics publishing division for good, going out of business altogether in the early 90s.
As Steve Ditko's legend had continued to grow, largely due to his 1960s work, his then-current work mostly languished in obscurity. And to be fair to the comic-reading public, a lot of his 1970s and 80s work was so ideologically dense, didactic and rigid, that it wasn't much fun to read. His reputation in the business for turning down paying work for ideological reasons also made the major publishers reluctant to employ him on a regular basis. Ditko continued to change nearly nothing about his admittedly still captivating. although terribly outdated, comic art style. However, a cult movement had formed around the enigmatic artist and his work of this era certainly had its fans, although they were never very numerous.
1990s to the present - Independence & Obscurity
During the 1990s, Ditko continued to freelance for Marvel Comics, to increasingly diminishing returns. With Jim Shooter's departure from the Editor-in-Chief position, he found himself mostly getting filler work, such as back-up stories in anthology titles like Marvel Comics Presents and Marvel Super-Heroes. In the latter title, Ditko presented what would be his final major creation for a big publisher, the quirky animal-powered character Squirrel Girl. In her debut story, she teams up with Iron Man to defeat none other than the feared Dr. Doom. His final new work for Marvel may have been a 12-page Iron Man story in 1998; he also drew a short New Gods story for DC around this time. Shortly after, he would leave mainstream comics for good.
In the early 90s, he contributed to Jim Shooter's new company, Valiant Comics. He started by drawing the company's WWF tie-in pro-wrestling books, later moving on to occasional work on Valiant's hero titles. During this period, his eccentricities seemed to only intensify, with Shooter stating that once, when Ditko came to his office looking for work, his "shoes were being held together with duct tape". He continued to refuse all interviews and public appearances, as he continued to work out of a small studio in Manhattan. Ditko also reportedly used pages of his old original art -- very likely valued in the thousands of dollars, in many cases -- as scratch paper.
After Shooter left Valiant, he formed Defiant Comics, and took Ditko with him. Alas, Defiant would not last more than a year. Since the late 90s, Ditko has focused mostly on putting out independently published collections of essays, editorial cartoons and comics. These are invariably edited by his long-time collaborator Robin Snyder. Steve Ditko's old work -- both for major and indie publishers -- continues to be reprinted. He still seems to be active at age 86 (as of 2014). The contributions that this eccentric artist has made to the comic book art form cannot be overstated, and whatever his political and philosophical beliefs, the impact he has had on both comics and the larger culture is gigantic.