Steve Ditko 1927-2018

Steve Ditko was one the Silver Age’s Holy Trinity. A man who, along with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, utterly transformed the entire genre of superhero comics which in turn have become such a bedrock of the new global culture.

Born in Pennsylvania, Ditko studied his craft under legendary Batman artist Jerry Robinson, before working under Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

While his work lacked the polish, bombast and classicism of his Kirby, Ditko excelled in body language and naturalism and had a peerless skill in crafting visually memorable characters. His Spider-Man is a masterpiece of eye-catching, instantly iconic design. But Ditko’s contributions were by no means purely visual. Ditko, who made his bones in romance comics, understood that it was the man (or boy, really) behind the mask that made Peter Parker so compelling and pushed for the inclusion of the many soap-opera elements of the book, often over the wishes of Stan Lee who would berate his artist to get Peter into the costume and throwing punches as quickly as possible. To get around this, Ditko created the classic “Spider-Sense Half Face” where Peter’s Spider-Sense was visually represented by half of his face becoming his Spider-Man mask, a cheeky way of meeting Stan’s imposed quotas for number of panels where he was in costume. It is largely thanks to Ditko that Spider-Man has arguably the greatest supporting cast in all of comics, with even supporting players like J. Jonah Jameson, Mary Jane and Aunt May being household names, something very few superheroes can boast.

Although any assessment of Ditko’s life must begin with his seminal run on Spider-Man, that was neither the beginning nor the end of his output. Ditko worked for virtually every major American comic publisher, creating characters like the Creeper for DC and the Question for Charlston comics, a character that continued Ditko’s winning streak of stunningly original, unforgettable designs. Ditko’s admiration for Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand often led him to use characters like the Question as mouth-pieces for his beliefs, which memorably led to Alan Moore’s savage satire of the Question in Watchmen, where the Question’s analogue, Rorschach, is a mentally disturbed itinerant fascist.

Always shy, in his later years he became the Salinger of the comics world, retreating into virtual isolation and refusing any interviews, saying that his work spoke for him. It did that.

He was found dead in his apartment on June 29, and it is believed he died of a heart attack two days earlier. He leaves behind one of the most significant legacies in the history of the comic book medium, and quite possibly literature as a whole.

And of course, that’s not even mentioning his greatest creation, Squirrel Girl.

9 comments

  1. No summation of Ditko’s life is complete without mentioning both The Question and Squirrel Girl, two characters so utterly opposite in every respect that if they shook hands they would mutually annihilate and release pure energy.

    Incidentally, everyone should be reading SG’s Eisner winning current book, in which she fights crime with Computer Science, gets Galactus to call Thanos a tool, fends off the amorous advances of “Nice Guy” Mole Man, ruins all of Tony Stark’s bathrooms, and participates in an Escape Room with Kraven the Hunter.

    I refuse to provide context for any of that.

  2. On one hand, Steve Ditko was a master in the realm of comic books, creating stories that couldn’t be done in any other medium. But then again, he strikes me as someone who can only create insufferably hateful “message” stories when he doesn’t have a co-writer to tell him to cut that out. So, I’m a bit conflicted about him.

      1. The thing is, Dave Sim wasn’t always like that. Okay, he was always sexist, but around issue 180 or so he suddenly went from “quite misogynist” to “seriously, what century was this written in?!”. I have no idea how that happened.

  3. I would normally pray that Mr Ditko Rest in Peace, but in all honesty one hopes that whomsoever happens to be bossing that Heavenly Bullpen racketing away in some smoke-filled corner of the Artist’s Valhalla to start cracking the whip and get Old Man Steve on their biggest books IMMEDIATELY (That Doctor Strange/Doctor Who crossover isn’t going to draw itself!).

    In all EARTHLY seriousness, Mr Ditko leaves behind a formidable body of work (indeed a corpus of Epochal works), characters that are ranked with the Immortals by an admiring public and died in his ninety-first year; how many artists can say the same?

    God Bless him and God Keep him.

    1. Jack’s in charge until Stan shows up. Some of the other souls in Artist Valhalla, two fellows by the name of Walt and Jim, are eager to meet old Stan.

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