Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Ditko, departed

In the summer of 1966, Marvel Comics suddenly went Steve Ditko-less. I’ve read a variety of reasons — money, locking horns with Stan Lee, fundamental disagreements about the series’ direction — but this post isn’t about why, it’s about what happened after. To wit, the first issues of Strange Tales and Amazing Spider-Man to be Ditko-less.

Of the two, it’s Dr. Strange’s adventures that suffered the most. New scripter Denny O’Neil didn’t seem to have a clue what to do with the “Master of Black Magic.” His first arc has a workable plot involving the Ancient One’s former friend-turned-evil Kaluu but he and artist Bill Everett lack the er, magic Ditko brought to the strip. I blame O’Neil more than Everett, though I might be wrong.

In any case, the story opens with O’Neil’s efforts to ground Stephen Strange in the real world:

This stuff works for Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Not Dr. Strange. The “realism” is very half-hearted too: Stephen simply has Wong withdraw a few jewels from Stephen’s stash to handle debts and repairs (I find it hard to believe ordinary workmen would be up for repairing the Sanctum Sanctorum). Maybe some readers had asked how Dr. Strange supports himself but even if that was the motivation, the story still doesn’t work. In another scene, Strange magically conceals his costume from people on the street, but it’s established he walks around Greenwich Village in his mage’s robes all the time; his status as a sorcerer is common knowledge, though not everyone takes it seriously. Did O’Neil decide that wasn’t sophisticated or realistic enough?

John Romita taking over the art and co-plotting on Amazing Spider-Man worked a lot better, thrusting the book to the top of Marvel’s sales charts. I’ll always be more of a Lee/Ditko fan but Romita gets Spidey in a way O’Neil never grasped Dr. Strange. That said, let’s look at a couple of scenes from ASM #39, starting with the Green Goblin prepping for his final battle with Peter.I went back and compared it to this similar scene from the Green Goblin’s second appearance in ASM #17 ——and while they’re obviously similar (intentionally?) the second one seems more static and talky. It feels much more like pure Stan Lee — he loved villains saying they’d beat their enemy “as only I can.” So was this page something Lee wanted in the script? Or was Romita, still relatively new to the Marvel method, using the same kind of “villain in his lab” scene Don Heck relied on to pad out stories? Looking at it, I can’t see anything in the Goblin’s dialog that the story had to include.

Another element that struck me is how sharply Peter’s personal life changes this issue. He started college in #29 with hopes of reinventing himself but ended up a loner just like high school. Every time someone tried to be friendly, Peter seemed to blow them off; in reality he was just worried about Aunt May’s health or the like. One student did invite him to a party but he turned her down when he learned she likes him for his brains (a scene that makes no sense to me — I think Peter would love the idea his smarts are attractive). An early scene in #39 continues the established dynamic —— but then everything reboots.It’s not implausible but it’s such an abrupt change in Peter’s fortunes, I wonder if Peter’s isolation is one of those points Lee and Ditko argued over (though I’ve never heard anything to indicate that). Flash has never shown this much decency towards Peter before (it’s rather out of character for him, I think). Gwen’s been much more ambivalent towards Peter, agreeing with the guys that he’s a self-centered jerk yet constantly wondering if there isn’t more to him.

Would this have happened if Ditko were still on the book? Or would it have happened slower and more gradually? This issue and the next also wrap up Spidey’s running battle with the Green Goblin, who wouldn’t return for almost five years, and brings Mary Jane onstage after multiple close encounters. Was Lee ready for a fresh start with stories more suited to his own vision for the book? Or did Romita want to stake out his own territory?

I have no definite answers to any of these questions but I still like speculating.

#SFWApro. Dr. Strange art by Everett, Spider-Man art by Romita except the Ditko page from ASM #17


  1. Le Messor

    Hah! I’ve just been reading an ASM omnibus, so this article is on-point for me.

    I’ve noticed that every letter has the same salutation: ‘Dear Stan and Steve’ (with the occasional ‘Dear Steve and Stan’ thrown in), but then suddenly in #37 and #38, they’re all ‘Dear Stan’.
    … Weird that Ditko was still on board for both those issues – his last two.

    I’ve also been thinking about how many letters are speculating about who the Green Goblin is – and I know it’s somebody who hasn’t even shown up yet.

    I find it hard to believe ordinary workmen would be up for repairing the Sanctum Sanctorum.
    I’ve got a story somewhere, where Strange has to get his cloak fixed. He didn’t go to a local tailor.

    Strange magically conceals his costume from people on the street, but it’s established he walks around Greenwich Village
    I mean, that’s Greenwich Village. Who’d notice?
    (I remember watching Star Trek IV as a kid, and my dad said much the same thing about Spock walking around SF in robes, when I asked.)

  2. Le Messor

    I remember a book (Good Omens?) where it says ‘they were surrounded by a crowd of interesting Soho night people*’
    ‘* In anywhere but Soho, they’d be interested night people’.
    Soho, London, though.

  3. I love that the Sorcerer Supreme, Master of the Mystic Arts, wielder of the Eye of Agamotto, keeper of the Sanctum Sanctorum, etc., can be defeated by the local zoning board or whatever. “I don’t know what a Watoomb is, mister, but this skylight ain’t up to code!”

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