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Steve Ditko: The Co-Creator of Spider-Man

on Wed, 05/22/2013 - 00:00

Steve Ditko
When legendary Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee first began to transform the superhero genre in the early 1960s by co-creating protagonists who were more human than their predecessors, his main go-to collaborator was the equally legendary Jack Kirby. Together the duo created the superhero team Fantastic Four, turned Dr. Bruce Banner into the Hulk, and launched the likes of Thor and Iron Man.

Fearing that Kirby was overextended, however, Lee handed their next concept to another comic book illustrator on the Marvel staff, Steve Ditko. Ditko immediately noticed similarities between this new superhero and an earlier creation of Jack Kirby known as The Fly, so Stan Lee reworked the basics of the character and handed his notes off to Ditko to flesh out further.

The resulting narrative about a meek teenager who suddenly finds himself with superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider quickly became a pop culture sensation. Within the realm of comic book superheroes, Spider-Man is in the top echelons, a member of the “Big Four” that includes Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. While Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are more household names than that of Steve Ditko, it is Ditko that played the major role in the development of the character.

Part of the reason for this anonymity is that Ditko himself has lived a relatively isolated and reclusive life, and although there is not a definitive biography of the man, Blake Bell has nonetheless crafted a basic overview of Steve Ditko in his book, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics Books, 2008).

Stephen J. Ditko was born on November 2, 1927, the son of a carpenter and seamstress living in Johnstown, Pennsylvania—a small town located approximately seventy miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Raised during the Great Depression, the primary form of entertainment for the Ditko family were the Sunday comics, especially Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant.

By the time young Steve Ditko reached the age of twelve, meanwhile, the superhero comic book phenomenon was in full swing, and Ditko soon became infatuated with Batman, especially the narratives constructed by co-creator Bob Kane’s assistant, Jerry Robinson. A few years later, Will Eisner’s The Spirit began appearing in the local newspaper, and Ditko decided shortly thereafter that he wanted to become a comic book creator and artist as well.

It’s not often that one gets to learn their chosen craft from the person most responsible for their career choice, but Steve Ditko was able to do just that when he moved to New York City following World War II and enrolled in the Cartoonists & Illustrators School. Jerry Robinson was one of the instructors there, and immediately took the younger man under his wings.

“They must understand the story’s structure and characterization,” Blake Bell quotes Robinson as saying about his students in Strange and Stranger. “Steve understood all that. He could work with other writers as well as write his own stories and create his own characters.”

In 1953, after having sold a small number of illustrated narratives for such publishers as Ajax-Farell and Gillmor Magazines, Ditko landed a job at the studio founded by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the duo who created Captain America for Marvel in the 1940s. While there, Steve Ditko further honed his craft under the tutelage of former DC artists Mort Meskin and Joe Kubert.

The introduction of the Comics Book Code a year later, however, resulted in a tightening-of-the-belt within the industry and the collapse of numerous small publishers. Fortunately for Ditko, he was able to find new employment with one of the few still-standing companies, Marvel Comics.

It was while at Marvel that Steve Ditko achieved his greatest successes, as well as left an indelible mark on popular culture. While the initial Iron Man of Jack Kirby, for instance, was fitted with a round clunk of grey armor, it was Ditko who streamlined the suit into an outfit more similar to the one later be worn by actor Robert Downey Jr. In the hands of Kirby, the Hulk was originally a greyish beast—again it was Ditko who turned the Bruce Banner alter-ego into a green monster while likewise adding the twist that the Hulk only appeared during fits of rage.

Despite such tweaks, however, it is Spider-Man that remains Steve Ditko’s most significant creation, and the character itself would no doubt have been a totally different superhero if not for Ditko.

“Unlike Kirby, whose heroes had a stocky majesty, Ditko populated his stories with rail-thin, squinting malcontents, placing the protagonist, Peter Parker, in a constellation of sneers, jabbing fingers, and angry eyebrows,” author Sean Howe writes in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper Collins, 2012). “All of this was balanced, brilliantly and precariously, with breezy acrobatic action sequences. Ditko’s rendering of athleticism was quite different from Kirby’s, more about gymnastic dodging than knockout punches, but it was just as exciting.”

While Steve Ditko obviously influenced the physical appearance of Spider-Man, he also played a key role in the storyline of Peter Parker as well. Marvel Comics of the early 1960s resembled a factory line, with Stan Lee scribbling a few paragraphs of plot on a piece of paper before handing the notes off to the likes of Jack Kirby to flesh out and illustrate, with Lee then later adding dialogue to the finished pages.

Not so with Spider-Man, as Ditko had his own ideas as to the nature of the famed webslinger. By the time the eighteenth issue of The Amazing Spider-Man appeared, Ditko was the one in charge, not Stan Lee.

“It was entirely plotted by Ditko, who’d been having disagreements with Lee about the direction of the comic and gradually taking more control of storylines,” Steve Howe explains. “Ditko resisted Lee’s requests to soften the harsh edges of the supporting characters that surrounded Spider-Man. He also argued against overwhelming the title with fantastic or mystical elements, preferring to keep the stories ‘grounded more in a teenager’s credible world.’ Lee called for a maximum of costumed fight scenes; Ditko pushed for more scenes of Peter Parker.”

Stan Lee confirmed their arrangement in a 1965 interview with the New York Herald Tribune. “I don’t plot Spider-Man anymore,” he said. “Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip. Since Spidey got so popular, Ditko thinks he’s the genius of the world. We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories. He won’t let anybody else ink his drawings either. He just drops off the finished pages with notes at the margins and I fill in the dialogue. I never know what he’ll come up with next, but it’s interesting to work that way.”

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t “work that way” for very much longer. Although Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man, the character itself was owned by Marvel Comics, which meant that Ditko did not receive any further compensation from merchandising or a potential Saturday morning cartoon television series that was in the works. Ditko was also a devoted follower of novelist Ayn Rand and her Objectivist philosophy that stressed self-interest and individual rights. In 1966, his growing frustration and personal beliefs led him to quit Marvel Comics, leaving the character he helped create in someone else’s hands.

Steve Ditko remained in the comic book industry for decades afterwards, working for the likes of Charlton Comics and DC Comics, with only mild and sporadic success. A firm believer that it was the story that mattered, he consented to very few interviews throughout his career and virtually no public appearances.

While it may be difficult to ever truly know or understand the comic book artist known as Steve Ditko, his work is another matter altogether. As an illustrator, Jack Kirby may have done most of the heavy lifting in the 1960s, laying the groundwork for the multimedia giant that Marvel Comics has become in the Twenty First Century, but if it wasn’t for Steve Ditko and his own unique vision and style, there may never have been a Spider-Man—resulting in the history of Marvel, as well as the comic book industry itself, being something altogether different.

Anthony Letizia

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