As a kid, I was introduced to three heroes by my dad. The first were the X-Men as the first superhero movie I ever saw was X2: X-Men United (my dad burned it on a VHS tape). The second was Batman which came in the form of Tim Burton’s Batman as well as Batman: The Animated Series. The final was Spider-Man. I had never seen a hero with such agility, such hilarity but also, one who seemed like such a regular guy. Where the X-Men and Batman built their identities around their powers and gadgets respectively, Spider-Man was someone who dealt with real problems such as being late to work, relationships with family among others. I knew from there that I had to learn more about Marvel’s most famous hero.
Over the course of the next few years, I began reading Spider-Man comics from each decade but for me, the classic comics of the 1960’s always stuck with me and this was due to the art from one man, Steve Ditko. As one of Marvel’s most iconic creators, Ditko was responsible for co-creating Spider-Man (and Doctor Strange which I will touch on later) and the art found in those pages remain as some of the best ever seen in a comic book. He was the artist who not only illustrated (and, increasingly, plotted) the first years of the wall-crawler’s existence, but co-created most of his iconic rogues’ gallery, including the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, the Lizard and many, many more.
Ditko’s work on the webbed hero, contrary to popular belief, was much bigger than people think. While most associate Stan Lee with the character, it was Ditko himself who conjured up the classic red and blue costume, the character’s power and gimmick as well as the spider signal. From there, the character appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15, which became a massive unexpected hit. He was the spun out into his own comic and thus, The Amazing Spider-Man was born with Lee writing and Ditko drawing. His work within the pages here were so iconic that Ditko’s art has been a staple in various adaptations of the character, specifically in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, the animated series Spectacular Spider-Man and most recent in the Marvel Studios film, Spider-Man: Homecoming.
This however, was not Ditko’s only major contribution to Marvel. In 1963, Ditko created the surreal and psychedelic hero, Doctor Strange. The abstract and ambient approach to otherworldly art was given the credit it deserved when the master of the mystic arts finally made his cinematic debut in Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange. Ditko is responsible for the mythology (co-creating Karlo Mordo, Eternity, Dormmamu etc.) and the iconography of Strange; similar to how Jack Kirby is responsible for the fleshing out of the Fantastic Four side of Marvel. While Ditko’s legacy at Marvel is still well-regarded, the artist did eventually leave the company for their biggest rival following creative differences with Stan Lee himself.
Ditko eventually made his way to DC Comics and, while the characters he created here are not as well-remebered as Spider-Man and Strange, it does not change the fact that they all remain as complex and exciting heroes to read about. For DC, Ditko is credited with the creation of Blue Beetle — another insect-themed character, who in many ways mirrored a more straight-laced, less anxious Spider-Man — as well as the Question and Captain Atom. All three characters who were literally ahead of their time; each would become successful under different writers and artists when revived for critically-acclaimed runs at DC. Additionally, he created a panoply of newcomers, from Hawk and Dove — two ideologically-opposed brothers given powers by a mysterious mystical force who had to work together to save the day — to Shade the Changing Man, a former secret agent whose M-Vest allowed him to reshape reality itself even as the political landscape around him shifted in an ever-more-paranoid series. Other DC creations included the Creeper, a reporter whose secret identity allowed him to fight injustice and untruth in a far more direct manner than simply writing.
What you will notice though is that with each character Ditko created, they all followed the same thought line. Ditko’s trademark on the comic realm was that all of his creations were in fact, strange and weird. They were outside the mainstream as they celebrated what it means to be an outsider during a time where superheroes preached sticking to the status quo. The very thing that made Ditko’s characters so likeable is that they embraced the weirder, more complex side of comic books. Even after his time with DC and Marvel ended, Ditko continued to work for decades, creating characters that defied character traits and followed his own off-kilter muse. At a time when few existed, Ditko can be considered an auteur of comics; a creator ahead of his time if you will.
Throughout his life, Ditko strived to go beyond the status of quo of the comics’ realm. Co-creating two of Marvel’s most popular characters as well as several others, the legendary artist was influential on numerous planes of existence. Sadly, he never profited from any of his character’s adaptations in film and television, but this does not mean that the impact he had will be forgotten. He demonstrated that it was okay to follow your own creative impulses and now, comics is a lesser place without him. Rest in peace Steve Ditko. Thank you for everything you gave to fans worldwide.