‘That’s Entertainment’ remembers the life, legend, and mystery of artist Steve Ditko
Ever heard of a man named Steve Ditko? Probably not. There are many comic book fans
across the globe, and millions have seen Stan Lee’s cameos in the Marvel Cinematic
Universe, but few remember Steve Ditko. For a long time, only die-hard collectors of
‘Tales to Astonish’ and early ‘Spider-Man’ from the 1960’s recognize his name. Even the
man, after leaving Marvel comics, lived as a recluse in New York City refusing all
public appearances and waving off all photographers. He never married, never had
children, and on June 29th 2018 he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of
The truth of the matter is, without Steve Ditko, comic books would not be a powerhouse
mainstay of popular American culture.
Without Steve Ditko, Spider-Man would not have
a suit, webshooters, or crawl on walls. Without Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange would have
no cape, no magical powers, and no dimensions to defend. Without Steve Ditko, there
would be no Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, Avengers, Cosmic Entities, or any
Stephen J. Ditko was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1927. After serving in World
War II, he moved to New York City and enrolled in art school thanks to the GI Bill that
gave financial aid to veterans. He studied under Jerry Robinson, who was famous for
creating Batman’s sidekick the Robin, and a co-creator of the Joker. It was through
Robinson that Ditko met Jack Kirby, and eventually Stan Lee. Kirby, Lee, and Ditko
would become the main figures of Marvel Comics, starting a dynasty of famous comic
book characters, and a multi-billion dollar film industry.
When it came to the inception of Spider-Man, these three artists traded designs to help
craft the character.
Stan Lee came up with the name, and wanted the plot to include a
teenaged boy with a magic ring. Jack Kirby changed it to ‘bitten by a radioactive spider’,
gave Spider-Man a cape, and a gun that shot spider webs. Stan Lee wasn’t sold on the
idea, so he passed it to Steve Ditko. It was Ditko who developed a red and blue uniform,
the mask, the wrist-mounted web shooters, as well as his abilities to climb on walls and swing like a
trapeze artist. He also developed core enemies like Electro, Doctor Octopus,
and the Green Goblin. Then in July of 1966, Ditko handed in a few pages to the front
desk at Marvel Comics, said he quit, and left.
He never returned.
Steve Ditko then jumped ship to the fledgling Charlton Comics, where he developed his
own cast of characters for multiple story arcs. Characters like the Blue Beetle, the
Question, Mr. A, Hawk and Dove. Eventually Charlton Comics shut down, and their
intellectual property was bought up by DC Comics. DC gave the characters to Alan
Moore, a die hard fan of Steve Ditko. Moore concocted a team-up of these classic
characters, but DC scrapped the project half-way through, telling him that they wanted to
fold some of these heroes into the Justice League. Moore then took the story, re-worked
the art with Dave Gibbons, changed the name of all the characters, and came out with
Today, ‘The Watchmen’ is an award winning graphic novel, spawning
one live-action movie, and two animated features. The characters of Hawk and Dove will
be getting a live-action treatment in the upcoming ‘Titans’ set to debut on DC’s new
online streaming service.
Steve Ditko continued to work for various DC and underground titles into the early 2000 era.
When Sony bought the rights to Spider-Man, they approached Ditko and offered him
residual cash for his creations, even offering him a cameo in the film. He refused. All he
wanted was his name in the credits, and nothing else. He was a very private person, did
not like attention from fans, or anyone else. To this day, there are only three known
photographs of Steve Ditko. To the few that knew him, they all say the same thing; “he
was a nice guy”.
In 2007, BBC presenter Jonathan Ross developed a documentary on the elusive artist. It took him almost two years to find Ditko’s office in Manhattan. When Ross finally tracked him down, Ditko refused to be filmed, and refused any monetary compensation for the production. Apparently, he shook hands with Ross, gave him some
comic books, and reportedly said “I guess I should not have put my name on my office
door”. This is, most likely, the last interview with Steve Ditko.
Even though he has passed on, Steve’s influence is still felt to this day. When Benedict
Cumberbatch fought Dormammu in ‘Doctor Strange’, the CGI effects were taken directly
from his hand drawn comic book panels. Even the ending battle scene in ‘Spider-Man:
Homecoming’ is an obvious homage.
If it were not for the imagination of a guy
scribbling funny papers in the 1960’s, many comic book fans would not have the icons
we all enjoy today.
To all comic book nerds out there, when you get a moment today, pick up a copy of
Doctor Strange, or download a classic Spider-Man back-issue. On the very first panel, in
small print, underneath Stan Lee’s swooping signature, look for the name Steve Ditko.
Remember the man through the art he gave to us all.