By Jeet Heer
National Post (May 3, 2003).
Although cartoonist Steve Ditko is a shy man who carefully avoids the media spotlight and refuses to give interviews, he does want journalists to know that he gets upset whenever he reads that Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee. In 1998, after Time magazine carried an article of this sort, they received a brief and angry letter advising them that Spider-Man was in fact created by both Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Surprisingly, Ditko's lonely campaign to be recognized as Spider-Man's co-creator, a struggle carried out mainly though letters to the editor and articles in tiny fan magazines, is paying off. Not only did Time promptly correct itself but this March, for the first time since the mid-1960s, Marvel Comics, the publishers of Spider-Man's adventures, is starting to acknowledge Ditko's formative role in drawing and co-writing first adventures of the superhero.
The Spider-Man movie, which in early posters just mentioned Stan Lee, has also followed suit. According to the on-screen credits, the movie is "based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko."
There is reason to believe that Ditko's new-found prominence in the credits is motivated by fear of bad publicity. A similar case occurred with Superman. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman in 1939, but there was never a hint of this simple fact in any comic book from the late 1940s, when the two cartoonists started feuding with DC Comics, until the late 1970s. In 1978, fearful that bad press over their mistreatment of Shuster and Siegel might sabotage the Superman movie, DC Comics finally started to credit the two pioneering cartoonists.
Just as Spider-Man's secret origins are occasionally revisited and revised in the comic book, the real-life story of how the masked hero was created has been contentiously debated. In part, the controversy grows out of the unique production process that Marvel Comics had in the early '60s, when such heroes as Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men were born.
Stan Lee, at that time editor and main writer for Marvel Comics, scripted more than a dozen comic books a month. To ease his heavy workload, Lee often allowed his artists to plot the stories on their own, and simply added dialogue after the fact. The freedom given to artists made Marvel Comics much more visually interesting than the text-heavy stories of other publishers.
Among Marvel artists, Ditko was second only to the immensely prolific Jack Kirby in generating characters and plots. While Kirby co-created the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, the Hulk and the X-Men (among many others), Ditko was the co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.
In the 1970s, Lee often talked as if he were the sole fountainhead of Marvel Comics, once joking that, "I'll take any credit that isn't nailed down." However, after being reproached by Kirby, who gave some bitter interviews in fan magazines, Lee has been much more gracious in assigning credit.
"I have always considered Steve Ditko to be Spider-Man's co-creator," Stan Lee wrote in 1999. "Steve's illustrated version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man and his coterie of supporting characters was more compelling and dramatic than I had dared hoped it would be. Also, it goes without saying that Steve's costume design was an actual masterpiece of imagination. Thanks to Steve Ditko, Spidey's costume has become one of the world's most recognizable visual icons."
Aside from Lee's slowness in acknowledging the importance of the Marvel artists, there are other reasons why Ditko remains a shadowy figure in the history of comics.
Although Kirby died in 1994, he remains the subject of a vast fan following. Aside from being constantly imitated by young cartoonists, Kirby has also inspired a bi-monthly magazine, The Jack Kirby Collector, devoted to celebrating his life work. Ditko, by contrast, is more of a cult figure, still respected but also isolated from the contemporary comic's world. His isolation grows out of both his idiosyncratic style, his radical right-wing politics and his personal desire to avoid publicity.
"Ditko's style was odd-ball for mainstream comics," notes Seth, a cartoonist based in Guelph, Ont. "Whereas Kirby's stuff clearly appealed to a boy's sensibility because there was so much raw power, Ditko's work was really delicate and cartoony. There was a sense of design to it. You can always recognize anything that Ditko designed because it's always flowery. There is a lot of embroidered detail in the art, which is almost psychedelic."
"His early work was gorgeous," agrees Gary Groth, publisher of The Comics Journal, the leading critical organ of the cartooning world. "He was a master of black and white, always knowing where to put the black to achieve great balance."
While Ditko the artist is admired, the man himself remains mysterious, in part because he resists requests for interviews. Since there is only a handful of known photographs of Ditko, many have described him as the Thomas Pynchon of the comics world.
Born in Johnstown, Pa., in 1927, Ditko served in the U.S. military before becoming a professional cartoonist in the early 1950s. His early work appeared in horror comics, and an element of the grotesque continues to inform his work.
Ditko hooked up with Lee and Marvel Comics (then known as Atlas) in 1956. Spider-Man made his appearance in 1962 in Amazing Fantasy #15.
Generally, Ditko's superhero work for Marvel in the early 1960s is regarded as his finest work, but he continues to draw to this day. After quitting Spider-Man in 1966, allegedly over a dispute with Lee, Ditko also started devoting his energy to self-published political comic books which expound the libertarian philosophy of Ayn Rand. (Ditko biographers believe he first fell under Rand's sway in the mid-1960s.)
Blake Bell, a Toronto-area Ditko fan who runs the www.ditko.comics.org Web site, notes that the cartoonist seems to base his life on Rand's John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, who refuses to do creative work for those who would take advantage of him.
As Bell explains, "Galt's philosophy is, 'don't starve and die because you don't want to compromise, but give them the lowest possible output in order to survive, so you can do what you want to do.' Ditko would do whatever superhero work he needed to in order to pay the bills, but focus his creative energies on the Randian work."
While other cartoonists admire Ditko's passionate devotion to personal _expression, his Randian work is generally regarded as inferior to the superhero comics of the early and mid-'60s. "The Randian philosophy was definitely detrimental to his work," argues Seth. "It seems to have taken all the life out of what he was trying to do with characters like Spider-Man and made it obsessively, ideologically boring."
Perhaps the problem with Ditko's Randian work is not so much the ideas as the fact that Ditko's primordial instincts as an artist clash with the imperatives of Rand's philosophy. Rand was a celebrator of human rationality, dismissing the mystical and sentimental. Yet in Ditko's best work, there is a strong feeling for human irrationality and especially an acknowledgement of the animalistic core of our identity. Many of Ditko's characters are half-men and half-beast: not just Spider-Man but also many of his enemies such as The Lizard and Doctor Octopus, Rhino, The Vulture. Reptiles and insects haunt Ditko's imagination, as does the supernatural. Ditko's Dr. Strange stories as well as his other horror tales showed a healthy knowledge of the dark corners of the human soul. In Rand's ideal world, everything will be bright, shining and rational; yet in Ditko's best work, we understand the limits of human reason, which is hemmed in by darker forces of instinct and emotion.
Not everybody dismisses Ditko's Randian work. Ditko admirer Robin Synder publishes Ditko's work in occasional black-and-white magazines. Synder's small fan magazine, The Comics, also features essays by Ditko where he explains his role in the creation of Spider-Man and expounds a Randian understanding of art. Perhaps because he is so devoted to ideas, Ditko avoids the publicity machine whereby artists gain fame. "Ditko is shy and quiet and wants the work to speak for itself," explains Bell, whose Web site is an act of personal devotion without sanction from the artist.
Now in his 75th year, Ditko by all accounts lives happily alone in his New York apartment. Because his Randian philosophy sanctions behaviour of large corporations, Ditko seems remarkably unbitter about the fact that he receives no royalties for co-creating Spider-Man. Rather than asking for money, Ditko just wants to be remembered for his role in creating one of the world's most famous fictional