The first published comics work by Steve Ditko (born Stephen J. Ditko, 2 November 1927) was a romance for Gilmor Publishing's Daring Love #1, the 6-page “Paper Romance” in 1953; though this was actually the second work he’d produced. The first, a horror story written by Bruce Hamilton, was titled “Stretching Things” and because of some typically convoluted publisher’s hijinks, the story, originally purchased by Stanmor, an imprint of schlock horror publisher Key Publications, traded hands and wasn’t published until 1954, in Ajax-Farrell’s Fantastic Fears #5. Along with work for a slew of second-string publishers like Farrell, Ditko the artist cut his eye teeth on weird and horror titles such as Charlton's The Thing! in the late 1950's.
Ditko’s interest in the comics began and was nurtured by the interest his father, also named Stephen, had in the newspaper funnies of the day, especially the ornate and beautiful Sunday pages of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. Ditko became a rabid fan of DC’s Batman, drawn at the time by Jerry Robinson, and of Will Eisner’s Spirit, which ran as an insert in the Philadelphia Record and the Newark Star-Ledger, among many other papers and which might have been circulated to the Ditko household in Johnstown, in the 1940’s. After high-school, Ditko enlisted in the Army in 1945, and while stationed in Germany after WWII ended, he drew strips for an Army paper there.
Upon his return to the States after his Army stint, Ditko moved to New York City in 1950 and enrolled in the Cartoonists & Illustrators School (founded by Burne Hogarth, which later became the School of Visual Arts) where one of his idols, Jerry Robinson, was teaching the art of comics. Ditko was a prized student of Robinson’s for two years, and it was there, Robinson speculated – as quoted in Craig Yoe’s 2010 Art of Ditko, Published by IDW—that Atlas editor Stan Lee, a frequent guest-lecturer for Robinson’s class, first saw Ditko’s work. It was also at C&I that Ditko met Eric Stanton, the illustrator of fetish and bondage comics with whom he would later share a studio.
Ditko’s professional career as an artist began at the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1953, where he worked first as an inker, inking background details, and eventually inking the pencils of one of his idols, the Simon & Kirby stalwart Mort Meskin. Ditko has described Meskin as a great teacher and big influence on him. Ditko went on to ink some of the Captain 3D book Simon & Kirby produced for Harvey Comics in 1953, and drew a story in Simon & Kirby’s Black Magic #27 in 1954.
Ditko soon branched out on his own, and did work for Charlton Comics, on some of the most graphic and goriest horror stories of the pre-comics-code era for what was, even then, a strictly low-end publisher. Charlton had long been a commercial printer and began publishing (starting with things like collections of song lyrics of the day) in order to keep their huge presses running through the night. While Charlton was notorious for its low page rates, shoddy production values and all-but-nonexistent attention to quality, they also allowed Ditko a very firm hold over the control of his own work with a minimum of editorial interference. (This insight may be a key to understanding the schism that later developed between Ditko and Stan Lee, as we will see later) Ditko produced covers and stories for Charlton horror & suspense titles like The Thing!, Out of This World, Tales of the Mysterious Traveler, Unusual Tales, Strange Suspense Stories, Sci-Fi titles like Space Adventures, Outer Space, and Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds, as well as various crime and western titles, all showing the developing visual sensibility and compositional skills that were developing into the uniquely Ditko style. Ditko introduced the superhero Captain Atom in Charlton’s Strange Suspense Stories in 1960. And for a short time worked in tandem at Charlton and Atlas/Marvel.
Charlton's low page rate encouraged Ditko to look elsewhere for work, and his portfolio brought him to the attention of editor Stan Lee at Atlas/Marvel, who allegedly remembered the artist’s work from his exposure at Jerry Robinson’s class. Ditko brought Atlas/Marvel the detailed and moody style he'd developed for stories at Charlton to the numerous short suspense and fantasy stories being cranked out by Lee in titles such as Strange Tales, Journey Into Mystery, World of Fantasy, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense.
As Atlas evolved into Marvel Comics, his creative sensibility was the only one distinct enough to rival that of Jack Kirby, Atlas/Marvel’s top producer and already a world-weary veteran. In fact, where Kirby’s art was filled with raw power and bombast, Ditko’s work was all mood and delicate subtlety, without losing the power to draw in readers and hold them firmly. It is as if Ditko was the Yin to Kirby’s Yang, the other side of the coin, the polar opposite of Kirby his former employer. Ditko’s moody art in the handling of Lee’s stories so impressed Lee that Lee convinced publisher Martin Goodman to do something all but unheard of at the time, build an entire title around a single artist’s work. The “giant monster” title Amazing Adventures (where Lee and Kirby introduced what was essentially Marvel’s first continuing hero character, Dr. Droom, inked by Ditko in his early outings) was retitled, and Lee and Ditko produced Amazing Adult Fantasy, which was subtitled “The Magazine That Respects Your Intelligence.” While the stories were more of the same typical O. Henry-type tales Lee had been excreting throughout the pre-hero Marvel era, Ditko put into many of the short tales some of his most distinctive drawing up until that time. This grand experiment failed, however (and not just because the word “Adult” in the title scared away many newsstand dealers) and low sales led to another grand experiment: Lee and Kirby had a hit on their hands with their attempt to go one better than DC with their new superhero title Fantastic Four, and were drawing curious readers with their hybrid monster/superhero title The Hulk, Lee wanted to expand the superhero roster at Marvel, and the final 15 issue of Amazing Fantasy (dropping the troublesome “Adult”) featured a Ditko-drawn superhero tale featuring his best known work at Marvel, The Amazing Spider Man. Joe Simon and Kirby created a spider-character some years before, and Kirby brought the idea of a Spider-Superhero to Lee, but Lee steadfastly maintains that Kirby’s Spiderman was in no way the genesis of what the character became; thanks in no small part to Ditko’s costume design, dynamic art and page design, Spider Man soon became the biggest thing in Comics.
Ditko increasingly took over the plotting of the Spider Man tales he drew – easily done using the Marvel-style of writing that gave enough elbow room to permit Lee to claim “writer” credit on the staggering amount of books he did; Lee is quoted in the introduction to the Yoe book as saying “All I had to do was give Steve a one-line description of the plot and he'd be off and running. He'd take those skeleton outlines I had given him and turn them into classic little works of art that ended up being far cooler than I had any right to expect” which may be as close as Lee ever came to admitting he leeched off the considerable talents of his artists to make the “Marvel Method” work—and also co-created with Lee the freshest variation on a comics magician yet seen, Dr. Strange in Marvel’s Strange Tales. Ditko’s visual inventiveness blasted through the roof on these Dr. Strange stories, and surprisingly for a conservative young artist, the imagery in the Strange stories could seem to have been fueled by chemical hallucinogens, even if all they really needed instead was the visual imagination of Steve Ditko.
Ditko abruptly left Marvel in 1966, and enough has been written elsewhere about the likely causes of his departure to free us from having to speculate at any length here. Ditko, as with almost all subjects, refuses any comment; Stan Lee has droned on at length about how swingin’ great ol’ Steve-O was to have as a collaborator, but will not let out even the barest hint of what acrimony arose between Ditko and himself at the height of their collaboration. It suffices to say that Ditko’s long plunge into the political and philosophical abyss of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism left the artist increasingly dissatisfied with the kinds of stories he was producing at Marvel and with significant aspects of society in general. Ditko returned to Charlton, where he could work in a manner he felt was less intruded upon by editorial control, even at their abysmal page rates and lower-than-that quality control. At Charlton he drew new adventures for Captain Atom, the character he co-created almost a decade earlier, as well as re-imagining the Blue Beetle (picked up by Charlton at what must have been a bargain-filled garage sale of characters from the refuse of Victor Fox's Fox Features Syndicate, The Beetle was worked on decades earlier by a young Kirby under the name Charles Nicholas) and venturing forth with his first foray into comic book characters fermented in the vats of Objectivist theory, The Question. He was able to inject Randian Objectivist ideas into his Blue Beetle stories as well. Ditko simultaneously went looking for a better paycheck and ended up at DC, who was happy to have him, where he was co-creator of the Objectivist influenced comic books The Creeper (first appearing in DC’s try-out book Showcase #75), which only lasted 7 issues including the Showcase issue, and The Hawk and The Dove, one of the most overtly Philosophical titles ever released by a major comic book publisher. As such it also barely lasted half a dozen issues and Ditko took his leave after the first two. One of Ditko’s legacies at DC was to recommend that DC hire then-Charlton staffer Dick Giordano, who would go on to become a distinctive artist in his own right, a landmark collaborator with Neal Adams and then to become the editor-in-chief of the whole DC line.
In the late 60’s Ditko produced several astonishingly beautiful stories for Archie Goodwin’s Creepy and Eerie at Warren publications, many showcasing Ditko’s heretofore unseen delicate renderings in wash-shading, in stories whose moodiness rivaled those of his earlier Dr. Strange stories. Ditko returned once more to Charlton in the early 70’s and created or drew several backup features for the popular E-Man comic book, including the distinctive Mocker; he also became a regular presence in the many ghost and horror titles Charlton was turning out, such as The Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves.
Throughout recent decades Ditko’s mainstream comics work grew scarcer and scarcer, doing jobs for both Marvel and DC with none of the soul or vitality of his earlier work. The last notable mainstream work Ditko is responsible for is arguably DC’s Shade, The Changing Man which he created in 1977 after returning to DC, which has been collected in an overpriced hardcover Omnibus edition, as well as various short-lived titles like Stalker and stints on back-up features or one-shot output for DC’s horror and Sci-Fi titles. At Marvel in the late 70’s he worked on Machine Man after Kirby left Marvel for the last time as well as several unfortunate licensed properties like Micronauts.
Ditko’s increasing obsession with Objectivism and Randian thought led to what some say is his greatest creation, if a challenging read for the average comics fan, Mr. A, who was first done in 1967 for the third issue of Wally Wood’s independent comics anthology Witzend. As Ditko’s apex of Objectivist Comics, Mr. A was defined as having no belief in any grey areas of human behavior, one was either all-black (a bad guy) or all-white (a good guy, being Ditko’s conception of the Hero ideal). Leaving aside the unfortunate racial shadings of that dynamic, this framework would seem to lend itself to the high-contrast sorts of storytelling that “superhero comics” require: Bad Bad Guys and Good Good Good Guys. Unfortunately for us as readers, Ditko’s work has increasingly slid down the slope away from entertaining and engaging storytelling – something Ditko excelled at—and toward dry, vehement Polemic, to the point today that the majority of what Ditko produces is well –drawn while being all but unreadable. Ditko's work since he retired from mainstream comics in 1998 has been published by Robin Snyder, who was his editor at Charlton, Archie Comics and elsewhere, and Snyder actively keeps the bulk of Ditko’s distinctive if decidedly oddball independent output available via sales through his web site. Ditko remained active until the end of his life, it remains debatable whether even the term "retired" was ever appropriate, given Ditko's continuing political vehemence right up until the last days of his life. Though as of his death there is yet to be any final tally of unpublished pages, but his nominal disgust with the current state of mainstream comics remained unabated into his advancing years.
Ditko was found dead in his studio apartment during the first week of July 2018, and New York City police determined he had passed away the week before, on the 29th of June. He remained reclusive and mostly silent about his earlier days until the end of his life. He was 90 at the time of his passing and had been active creatively right until his death.
Ditko was named to the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1990, and into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 1994. Much of his finest work remains in print in various forms. We may hope that Robin Snyder will continue to make his philosophical screeds available to a reading public who deserves to know the man at his best as well as his present state.
Testimonials to Ditko were issued by, among many others, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro, and Edgar Wright. A fine final appraisal by Graeme MacMillan of Ditko's cultural legacy appeared in the Hollywood Reporter on July 6th, 2018.
Characters Created by Steve Dikto