Brilliant but eccentric, Spider-Man’s forgotten right-wing co-creator surfaces in a new book
In a movie season littered with brooding heroes like Batman and Hellboy, the superhero who casts the largest shadow may be the one who’s not popping up at multiplexes. When Spider-Man burst on the page in 1962, he revolutionized a comics scene littered with chiselled, preternaturally confident men of action. Here, suddenly, was a bookworm who didn’t fit in at school, looked weedy in his spider suit, and who, the moment he’d foiled his first criminals, was branded a public menace. Spidey was the first of the troubled loner superheroes, and the man to thank for him, people say, is Stan Lee. But behind every great comic by Lee was a thankless artist toiling in the shadows, and behind Spider-Man was Lee’s brilliant and eccentric co-creator, Steve Ditko.
If Ditko has been eclipsed in the historical record, monetarily, too, he was shafted: paid a paltry page rate for work that would generate millions for others. Outside comic-book fandom, where he’s viewed as a legend for works like Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, he’s utterly unknown. His pieces are rare on the lucrative art market. Now the first real retrospective, the handsome Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics Books) by a Toronto author, Blake Bell, pieces together a portrait of the elusive genius.
The 80-year-old Ditko isn’t the easiest guy to memorialize. He doesn’t give interviews. As prickly as he is visionary, he refused to participate in this book, which, he told Bell five years before its publication, was “a poison sandwich.” He has warred with collaborators and fans. It turns out one reason it’s hard to buy his art is that he hoards it all. (He has denounced the comics-art world as a “thieves’ market,” says Bell, much of the work
withheld from creators, or stolen.) GregTheakston, an illustrator, talks in the book about visiting Ditko’s studio in New York and seeing him use as a cutting board a page with a “Comics Code” stamp. A closer look showed it was an original Ditko page from the ’50s. Ditko had thousands of them socked away.
Ditko fell out with Stan Lee, too, although he wrested an unprecedented level of creative control from him and, eventually, credit. By Spider-Man issue No. 11, Dikto was drawing the strip, but also handling most of the plotting and even the dialogue notes, to be scripted by Lee. He got credit for that work, but 14 issues later. By his last year on the strip, the two had stopped talking, Bell says. Ditko would draw the strip with no indication to Lee of what he intended. Spider-Man No. 35 introduces a new super-villain, Meteor Man. By the next issue he’s called the Looter.
The name brings up a key source of Ditko’s various wars. It’s straight from the songbook of Objectivism, the individualistic, hard-right ideology founded by Ayn Rand. Capitalist, anti-collective themes emerged ever more stridently in Ditko’s work. In one page, printed in Bell’s book, Peter Parker is mobbed by hippies. “Another student protest! What are they after this time?” he asks. In 1966 Ditko walked out on Marvel over what he said were unpaid royalties and broken promises. He did most
of his subsequent work for smaller houses. To subsist, he inked pages, unapologetic grunt work. His creative output has since included the vigilante hero Mr. A, and a mountain of political diatribes in essay/cartoon form.
But his legacy is undeniable. Visually, Ditko was revolutionary. His world is haunted, evocative, its darkly real cities peopled by gaunt, grotesque-looking people. Not for him the sleek, cosmopolitan Gotham of Batman-, Peter lives in Queens with an Auntie May who looks as elderly as she’s meant to be. Pre-Ditko, too, superhero action had a staccato rhythm, says Bell. “It was all fury, fist-on-fist power. Ditko’s heroes moved. It was almost like a ballet—they bent and they curved, they were pliable.” Ditko was fascinated by his heroes’ inner lives. “To him, what the person does when he doesn’t have his mask or his superpowers is just as important,” says Dave Sim, the controversial Canadian author of the indie comic Cerebus. The very idea of a complex moral and philosophical overlay in a comic was Ditko’s legacy, one acknowledged by artists like Frank Miller (Sin City).
Ditko drew Spider-Man for 38 iconic issues. The artist who took over, John Romita, couldn’t mimic his style. The series’ look completely altered, as did the narrative. “His classmates embraced him,” says Bell. “Mary Jane Watson was pretty, and even Spider-Man was looking like a muscled superhero. It changed from a revolutionary series to just a well-written, well-drawn superhero book.” M
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