Atomic Roundtable: Ditko Memories

Greg H.: Never met the man. He didn’t do conventions and even if he did, I wasn’t going to any until Steve Ditko was well into his reclusive self-publishing phase. All I knew was the work, and my understanding is that’s how Ditko wanted it.

So here’s a sample of the Ditko stories that hit my youthful self right between the eyes. Some famous, some not. These are just the ones where I remember saying, “Whoa.”

My first Ditko was this story, reprinted in Marvel Tales #19. “Spider-Man Goes MAD!”

It was pretty trippy but I loved it.

The next was a Doctor Strange reprint in Marvel’s Greatest Comics, “What Lurks Beneath the Mask!”

That was right in the middle of Ditko’s epic Mordo/Dormammu story and it was hugely frustrating to me at age nine to be unable to get the rest of it. (When Marvel reprinted the story in a series of specials in the 1980s I was all over it.)

I missed all the Charlton stuff and most of the early DC work. But the Creeper origin reprinted in Detective made a HUGE impression on me.

By this time I was getting savvy enough to recognize artist names and styles. When people talk about Ditko’s time at DC in the seventies, they usually mean Shade The Changing Man. But me, I was all about Stalker.

I had just found Robert E. Howard and sword-and-sorcery, and Stalker immediately became my favorite of the DC offerings in that area. It also persuaded me that it WAS possible for someone else to ink Ditko… but only if it was Wally Wood.

It was a great book and I’m still sad it only ran four issues.

That was still longer than Man-Bat, which only ran two issues, and only one with Ditko. Still, Ditko on Batman, even briefly….

Shortly after that I was off to college for a brief and undistinguished academic career. During that time I drifted away from comics. Apparently Ditko had too, at least the Marvel and DC stuff. When I came back to them in the mid-1980s Ditko was self-publishing, deep into the Objectivist/Ayn Rand rabbit hole; and honestly that stuff at best left me cold and at worst creeped me out. It didn’t help when he refused to be interviewed or appear on camera for the documentary Masters of Comic Book Art, but instead insisted on reading a manifesto that sounded kind of deranged; it ran as a voice-over with a montage of his art.

At that point I’m afraid I filed him as another industry casualty, a guy who’d been made crazy by the comic book industry. At least he didn’t self-destruct completely like Jack Cole or Wally Wood. If he showed up on a mainstream book I was interested in I’d give it a look, but it was clearly done just for the check, not a passion project. Even so, the Ditko magic was still there, like in this one-off for Marvel’s short-lived Dracula magazine.

That’s all I’ve got. I don’t have anything profound to say about the man. Just that his work was amazing and though I find Randian philosophy loathesome, I’m glad Steve Ditko found a creative outlet that satisfied him and made him a living. I hope he was happy.

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Travis Pelkie:

Oddly enough, I first would have encountered Ditko through a GoBots picture book, I think, or else a Transformers picture book.

And after that, the first time I was aware of Ditko was through a Dark Horse one shot from the early ’90s called The Safest Place in the World, about someone trying to smuggle microfilm out of an Iron Curtain country.

Odd places to first encounter him, huh?

Obviously I’ve gotten into more of his stuff, like The Question, and of course the earliest Amazing Spider-Man run is *ahem* amazing. But I still like that those weird early things were where I first encountered him.

Another fun story I heard was from Roger Stern, who worked at Marvel in the early ’80s and Ditko apparently had an office at Marvel as well. Reportedly Ditko called out to Stern and asked him what he was doing, and at the time, Stern was on Spidey and Dr. Strange, so he could and apparently did say to Ditko, well, Steve, I’m doing the books that you started.

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Edo Bosnar: Like Greg, I never met the man – although, apparently, few outside of a circle of comics professionals have – and can’t really say anything deep or meaningful about him (and yes, I’m no fan of Rand’s ‘philosophy’ of which he was apparently an adherent), other than to point out that he’s the guy who friggin’ created or co-created Spider-man, Dr. Strange, Captain Atom, the Ted Kord Blue Beetle, the Question, the Creeper, Hawk & Dove, Shade the Changing Man, the Prince Gavyn Starman (still my favorite Starman), Squirrel Girl, etc., and also designed some of the most iconic costumes in superherodom (most notably Spidey’s costume, but also Iron Man’s red and gold armor).

Needless to say, I love the guy’s work, and the epiphany came for me sometime in late 1978 or maybe early 1979. Before that, when I occasionally saw his art the modern comics of the time, I was pretty indifferent to it, finding it less attractive than that of the more popular artists of the time. All that changed when I got my hands on the Marvel pocketbook reprints (about which I’ve written before). I first got the Spider-man book, and the subsequent volumes, collecting the origin in Amazing Fantasy no. 15 and the first twenty issues of Amazing Spider-man.

Not long after that, I came across the Dr. Strange book, and then its follow-up. These collect pretty much the entirety of Ditko’s run with that character in Strange Tales, with the exception of the last two or three stories.

These were a complete revelation to me. I loved the stories and I thought the art was fantastic. Ditko’s mastery of visual storytelling, in terms of both action (esp. in Spider-man) and scenery and mood (particularly in Dr. Strange), are really on full display in these books – I loved them and read them over and again, until they were practically falling apart. After that, and ever since, I’ve had a deep – albeit not uncritical – appreciation for Ditko’s work.

As an aside, I have to disagree a bit with Greg, because in addition to Wally Wood, there was another artist whose inks complemented Ditko’s pencils quite well: John Byrne, believe it or not. They were the art team for Roger Stern’s delightful story in Avengers Annual no. 13. Here’s an example of how that looked:

Even Ditko’s controversial Mr. A stories, while a chore to read, are still worth looking at for the art – although it’s a bit telling that the best of them is the one without any dialogue. In that vein, I wanted to close this by highlighting one of Ditko’s more obscure creations, a character called Killjoy, who appeared in back-up stories in the second and fourth issues of Charlton’s E-man in the early 1970s. His Objectivist views were definitely on display here, but because they are more or less satirical stories, they’re much more palatable than Mr. A and they’re actually rather entertaining, with really well done action sequences. What I like most about them is that you get the impression that you’re reading Ditko’s fever dreams: the irrepressible Killjoy (who never says a word!) swings from one scene to another, stopping criminals, grifters and moochers, who all whine about how he’s depriving them of their right to break the law or otherwise take something to which they’re not entitled.

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Rest in peace, sir.

5 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    I’m glad someone brought up the pocket books. That all that greatness was available back when trades and collections weren’t even a thing, and probably even before Marvel Tales, was a wonderful thing. The single issue frustration of the time, as reflected in the Dr. Strange story story was a big thing, and it was hard to collect any back issues unless you got really lucky at a garage sale. But Spider-Man is the juggernaut he is today because of how those issues popped.

    Though everything Ditko did seemed to popped. I’m amazed by how great he did Dracula while not surprised at all, in a sense. That art could be a poster, or framed. It’s also apparent part of Marvel’s success, beyond the more “human” stories, was the freedom they gave artists. DC art really had a strict inking style, or just a few doing a lot of inks, because there’s a sameness to it all. Ditko’s own stuff looks different when someone like Byrne inks him, sure, but the art all looks distinctive. The DC art almost looks interchangeable, and loses a lot of what made Ditko Ditko, as good as it is.

    I don’t know if it makes them more or less like Ditko, but I don’t know that Cole and Wood were guys that were made crazy by comics as much as guys who had issues that were in comics. They may have lashed out at the medium, but the things that ultimately did them in seemed to be simmering from other things.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    For me, earlier Ditko, when he seemed to have the passion, is vastly more satisfying than later Ditko, where he was earning a living on characters that meant nothing to him. I’d see him turn up in Micronauts or see a Creeper back up, in the ;ate 70s/early 80s and I would think, :Ugh, not Ditko again!” But, when I’d see a reprint from the 60s or earlier, there was a vitality, a daring.

    As I grew older, I came to appreciate more of what Ditko did; but, it was still the books where the passion came through that wowed me, especially Dr Strange. The visuals on that are beyond compare. The dynamism inherent in Blue Beetle, or the oppressive city in which the Question fights corruption fly out at you. His mystery and horror is filled with tension and even biting satire.

    Dick Giordano, in the Comic Book Artist, spoke of Ditko creating a comic for the Christmas holidays, at the Charlton plant at Derby. He’d put up a page at a time, with what Giordano described as the must darkly funny and twisted Santa story, ever, with each page wilder than the one before. Unfortunately, it is only a memory of those who were there. You saw snippets of that, with Killjoy or in Not Brand Ecch; but, not as much once Rand stepped in.

    It’s a shame that he was so private; but, he probably wouldn’t have been the artist he was, had he been more social. Those who knew him really can’t paint a very big picture. Een Eric Stanton, the fetish artist/cartoonist, who shared a studio, never really gave great insight, even after showing photos of the two of them together, in the studio, to prove that, yes, he and Ditko worked together, occasionally helping each other out with the inking (though Stanton never inked Spider-Man).

    1. Edo Bosnar

      I sometimes had that “oh, no” response during that period (i.e., latter half of ’70s/early ’80s), specifically when he appeared as a guest artist in Micronauts or Legion of Super-heroes – he wasn’t a good fit for either of those titles.
      However, during that same period I thought he was turning in really top-notch art elsewhere. I mentioned the Prince Gavyn Starman stories in Adventure Comics. Even though his pencils were being inked by Romeo Tanghal, his excellence really shined through for me. His Missing Man features in Pacific Presents, from 1982 I think, are also outstanding.

  3. As I was a DC kid, the first Ditko series I followed was the Creeper, then Shade the Changing Man. Creeper doesn’t hold up for me, but I do love the idea Jack Ryder’s putting on an act as a psycho/demon — of course in almost every iteration since, he really is nuts.
    I agree that his early stuff has the most punch. Doctor Strange is something I can reread time and again just to look at the visuals (though the stories are solid too).

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