COMICS CREATOR SPOTLIGHT on Steve Ditko, Comics’ Resident Outsider
“Steve Ditko was an original voice, both in his drawing style and in his writing and his politics, and I would say that today’s audiences, if they’re going to see things like the Spider Man films, they should be painfully aware throughout every moment of the film that this is a character who was created by this extraordinary artist: Steve Ditko.” -Alan Moore, In Search of Steve Ditko, 2007.
There is often a source of tension in the comics medium between the writers and artists who create them. Who should get more credit? Should it be the writers who come up with the stories and dialogue about the characters we love, or the draughtsmen who visually bring these creations to life and add life to the pages of the comics we love? None have ever caused us to question this argument more than Steve Ditko.
While I usually follow writers when it comes to comics, there have been artists that have impressed me over the years. Mike Mignola (Hellboy), is a talent who I’ve only more recently come to enjoy. He took the idiosyncratic artwork of Kirby and Ditko and added the atmospheric flare of German Expressionism, creating a wholly unique vision while remaining somewhat familiar. Jean Giraud, more known by his moniker ‘Moebius’ is an artist whose imagination was so grand and surreal that I fail to think of another who can come close to his brand of artistry. There are several other artists I could mention as well: Sean Phillips, Lee Bermejo, Andrea Sorrentino, Wally Wood, and others, but I find myself continually drawn to the reclusive, enigmatic draughtsman that was Steve Ditko (1927-2018).
I didn't discover Ditko's art, not really, until I was in my mid-teens. I did read the original Amazing Spider -Man run he did with Stan Lee in the '60s, but I didn't know who he was or who Jack Kirby was until a bit later on in my life. I eventually discovered who Ditko was from another enigmatic genius of the comics, Alan Moore, as well as a documentary that he was a part of, called In Search of Steve Ditko. The documentary was an exploration/love letter of his work, and it was the thing that got me into Ditko, and he would eventually become one of my favorites.
Ditko’s art was certainly unique because, much like his contemporary and co-worker Jack Kirby, his style was more idiosyncratic and unusual than the common superhero artwork of the time. His anatomy was particularly stylized, but unlike Rob 'What is Anatomy' Liefeld, whose work would make one confused in how it got into print, Kirby and Ditko were rather charming with their idiosyncratic designs and styles. Unlike Kirby, Ditko never made his heroes have the more ‘standard hero look.’ All of his characters look mundane, unremarkable, and ‘normal,’ yet with hints of madness and expressiveness that only he could bring to life.
Easily, his most famous creation would be Spider-Man, whom he co-created with Stan Lee. Many people would contest this and claim that Ditko actually created the character, since it was him who came up with his now iconic design. But I don't believe it's the case, Stan was the one who dreamt up the character, while Steve was the one who brought him to life, and Stan would lament that no one other than Steve could have done so, as he brought so much to the character. Many people forget, what made Spider-Man so unique and unusual was that he was a teenager, not much older than I am now. He wasn't a sidekick or helper to the main hero, and had to deal with normal problems that someone like you or I deal with in the real world. It was this partnership, with Stan's verve as a storyteller and Steve's expressive, yet unusual artwork that made Spider-Man so compelling then and to this day. Though sadly it seemed that much like with Lee' and Kirby co-creations, Lee and Ditko would forget that they both came up with Spider-Man, and that he wouldn't have been as successful as he was if it weren't for their combined effort. It has been a good pointer in not using the so-called 'Marvel Method' in order to avoid these types of hassles with any artist I find myself being fortunate enough to work with.
But what most people find the most interesting about him is his reclusiveness, as well as his adherence to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which would have a profound effect on his life and his artwork. Alan Moore would later comment on this with his character Rorschach in his seminal work Watchmen, which was supposed to be a parody and commentary on Ditko’s morally absolute characters like Mr. A and The Question. Moore would later recount a story he heard about Steve being interviewed and being asked about Watchmen and Rorschach, to which he responded “Oh yes, Rorschach. He's like Mr. A...except he's insane." Certainly this aspect of his personality and beliefs are probably what has become the most controversial part of his life, considering how prickly it can make some people, due to the controversial teachings of Objectivism.
But I suppose that it is this strangeness, and this sense of being an outsider that's kept me attracted to Steve's work over the years. Steve always knew what it was like to be odd, to be an outsider, and he knew that in a way that was so uniquely his, that he brought it into any work that he was put on. He never wanted thanks for his work, or any sort of praise, but rather preferred to allow his work to speak for itself. He never wanted to parade himself around if he felt that his work was more than enough to do that on its own.
No one could ever replicate Steve Ditko, whether it be for his artwork or his view of the world. John Romita, Sr would later reminisce about how he could never replicate Ditko's signature idiosyncratic look (he certainly was no Duncan Fegredo, who aced mimicking Mignola's Hellboy style), and I don't think that anyone could have ever replicated what Steve brought to his works. Stan Lee might've been the heart of Spider-Man, but Ditko was his soul, and no one but him could have given Spider-Man his look. I think there was a part of Steve's subconscious that could relate to Peter Parker/Spider-Man: a lonely, strange outsider who wanted to find some sort of acceptance in the world, and we loved him for it because we all know those feelings. It was this soul that continues to make his work important, and what makes it last to this very day.