It was a tribute to the power of Spider-Man that his “co-creator” Steve Ditko received far more attention when he died recently than he ever had while he was alive. It marked the way we’ve taken the comic book heroes of half a century ago and turned them into mainstream culture, which has brought many comics creators fame that Ditko never saw. Or necessarily wanted.
While the obituaries of Ditko all led with Spider-Man, and followed with his other key creation, Doctor Strange, most skipped past the turning point in Ditko’s career. In 1966, with both his characters wildly popular, and Marvel benefitting from their redefinition of the entire comic market, Ditko abruptly quit the company. Marvel’s main rival was DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman, but Ditko moved instead to lowly Charlton, where he worked on revivals of super hero characters like the Blue Beetle and Captain Atom (which he’d created for them in the Fifties) and created a new hero who provides the real clue as to why he’d left Marvel. He was called The Question.
The Question was newsman Vic Sage, who, donning a suit and fedora, would spray on a faceless mask as he sought out evildoers. He had no super powers, but what made him different was his relentless devotion to a black-and-white idea of good and evil. When villains fell into the fast currents of sewer water, The Question refused to save them. Sage believed we chose our own destinies, and that such choices were starkly defined, without grey areas. The Question was, in short, an Objectivist, a follower of Ayn Rand. As was his creator.
As the Sixties progressed, old paradigms of authority – “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, as the old Superman TV show put it – were crumbling. Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead were reading Doctor Strange while they took acid on the Magic Bus. We proto-hippies felt Ditko must be one of us. But he wasn’t. Situational Ethics had taken hold of a generation unable to see the value in the existing certainties of (literally, in the case of Civil Rights) black and white. One way to look at Ditko’s feud with Marvel is to see it as his battle against a generation that specifically rejected the Ayn Rand philosophy which had for years been selling comics to weedy kids; the generation which were now reading Marvel.
A little backstory: Comic books were the bastard children of newspapers, almost literally, because the first comic books were collections of daily and Sunday comic strips, a concept developed by MC Gaines (Max Ginzburg) and Harry Wildenburg when they published Famous Funnies in 1933. Everyone, including adults, could read the “funny pages” in their paper without embarrassment, and comic artists, who developed from political cartoonists, held positions of prestige in the newspaper world. Winsor McCay (Little Nemo), Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), Hal Foster (Tarzan, Prince Valiant) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat) all had their strips syndicated around the country, and commanded top dollar. They tended to come from “mainstream” American backgrounds (though Herriman, ironically, hid his Creole origin all his life).
Comic books were different. They got no second-hand prestige from the pages of newspapers. They were a unique product, and they soon found their market among children and adolescents. You can infer their readership from the ads that ran on the inside covers: Charles Atlas humiliations aimed at 98-pound/7-stone weaklings; see-through spy glasses; magic tricks to make you popular. They were mass-produced, paid by the page, and attracted their creators from urban ethnic backgrounds, many from around New York and Jewish. People like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) who created Captain America; Will Eisner, author of The Spirit, which originated as a comic-book sized Sunday paper supplement; Max’s son Bill Gaines, Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein, responsible for both EC Comics and its most famous title, Mad; Bob Kane (Kahn) and Bill Finger, creators of The Batman; and most famously Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who brought Superman into the world. They were youngsters who’d read science fiction, Tarzan, Doc Savage – all of which starred ubermenschen, though they may not have read Nietschze. Superman came from Krypton where everyone had Hebrew names (ending in -el, such as Kal-el and Jor-el) and disguised himself a Clark Kent, an American WASP. He wound up working on a newspaper based in Metropolis, named for Fritz Lang’s city inhabited by zombie-like workers. Which is how comic book artists like Ditko might have felt, churning out page after page of piecework.
What Stan Lee (ne Lieber) did was aim a little higher, in two ways. Marvel may not have been the first company to use the extra space afforded by comic books to produce a more dynamic narrative, but Lee’s way of working was revolutionary. Rather than write stories and give them to the artists to illustrate, he came up with plots – in some cases just ideas – for his greatest artists, Kirby and Ditko. They plotted the stories as they drew them out, then Lee would add dialogue to the finished pages. The artists produced stories that were visually driven and more cinematic in their story-telling, though this did create some problems: Ditko wanted, and was eventually given, credit for “plots” as well as pencilling on Spider-Man.
Lee also had a great sense of his audience, and began pitching Marvel at a slightly older market, adding characters’ personal lives and their emotional difficulties to his super hero mix. In the past, teen-aged heroes tended to be sidekicks, like Batman’s Robin, or supporting cast, like the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch. But when Lee had the idea for a hero with spider powers, and passed it on to Ditko, it was Ditko who came up with the concept; he created the costume, the abilities and – most importantly – the nerdy teenager Peter Parker, shy and bullied at high school, hiding under a mask that, unusually for a super hero, conceals his face.
Spider-Man was not an ubermensch; he was a kid like the ones who read comics, trying to cope with the confusion of now having super-powers. Ditko was the perfect artist for the character. His years of churning out horror mysteries had allowed him to develop stylised faces that expressed extreme emotion. His Peter Parker trembled with geeky fear. Jonah Jameson, the newspaper editor to whom Parker sold pictures, was a frightening bully, as were many Ditko authority figures, such as General Thunderbolt Ross, nemesis of the Golem-like Hulk. Ditko’s bodies bent exaggeratedly, their limbs seemed to extend unnaturally (he had studied under Plastic Man creator Jerry Robinson). His Spider-Man, unlike a Kirby hero, was visually less reliant on pure muscle. Peter Parker, on the other hand, looked a lot like his creator – although without Steve Ditko’s thick glasses.
But Lee and Ditko feuded. The writer Neil Gaiman (Sandman) described their chalk and cheese relationship as “Swingin’ Stan versus the impossibly uptight Steve.” Ditko chafed when Lee added dialogue and turned Spidey’s contempt for student protestors into encouragement. When Ditko created the manically bizarre The Green Goblin, he wanted him to be a random villain off the street. Lee insisted on making him the father of Parker’s best friend. Lee’s commercial instincts triumphed over Ditko’s dislike of having to rationalise the Goblin’s evil. The two men stopped talking to each other, until one day, , after delivering his pages, Ditko told the production manager he was quitting.
While he was doing The Question for Charlton, Ditko also produced a more extreme version of the same character for Witzend, a magazine for a more adult audience published by the famed artist Wally Wood. He was called Mr. A, after Rand’s dictum that A is A, and not B.
A was like The Question with most of the action removed, and huge chunks of philosophical debate added. I remember being fascinated by it – in an amused way. It was hard to imagine anyone taking Rand that seriously. Sixties youth were not reading Robert Heinlein’s Rand-influenced SF novel Starship Troopers. Instead they devoured Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land, whose uber-mensch protagonist, Valentine Smith, comes from Mars and brings a path to enlightenment – to ‘grok’ – that includes free-love (and eating the dead). But it was Rand’s authoritarian bent, in the name of individual freedom, that animated Mr A, years before Pauline Kael denounced Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry as “fascist art”.
Ditko went to Charlton so he could share his (and Rand’s) world-view, not Stan Lee’s. Lee was a classic liberal, a master self-publicist who was busy creating a devoted Marvel fan base. The kind of man who, at age 96, still delights in making cameo appearances in Marvel films. He wanted to please the fans. Ditko was a recluse, avoiding his fans, barely present in Marvel’s self-promotion. He wanted his stories to play out the way he thought they should, and his heroes to follow the ethos he thought heroes should follow.
Ditko’s template was Rand’s other major novel, The Fountainhead. Sitting at his own drawing board, Ditko became Howard Roark, the architect who won’t bend his individual vision to suit popular trends. Lee was Wynand, the newspaper publisher who eventually turns on Roark. Yet for all his espousing of the strong individual, by now Ditko himself was very much a follower of Rand’s. He didn’t share Rand’s fondness for unfettered self-interest, but he was devoted to being part of what she would characterise as the productive elite. He was a humble artist, but he wanted credit for his work, he wanted more control over his output – if not financial control of his “intellectual property”. That wouldn’t come to the comics industry until a couple of decades later. But who would have guessed that in 1968 – at the very time Ditko was expounding Objectivism in Mr. A – Ayn Rand disciple Alan Greenspan had been consulting with Richard Nixon, and would eventually become chairman of the Federal Reserve. (Greenspan’s view of unfettered self-interest was somewhat more relaxed than Ditko’s.)
The characters of Alan Moore’s landmark 1986 graphic novel Watchmen were based largely on those created by Charlton and acquired by DC when the company folded. In the meantime, DC had embarked on a relaunch of The Question, written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Denys Cowan. O’Neil’s Question was never going to follow in Ditko’s stark world of good and evil. Moore’s version of a Ditko character was Rohrshach, whose distinctive facial mask, trenchcoat and fedora spoke of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer as much as either The Question or Mr. A. Moore took Ditko’s philosophical quest for pure good or evil to its logical conclusion, and then discovered that despite Rohrshach’s extreme right-wing views, his “ferocious moral integrity”, which Moore described as his own “take on Ditko”, almost made him the hero of his book. He also recalled being told that one interviewer had asked Ditko if he’d ever seen Rohrshach. After some thought Ditko replied, “Oh yes, he’s like Mr. A, except he’s insane.”
Ditko’s replacement as Spider-Man’s artist was John Romita, whose people were less stylised but far more attractive than Ditko’s. Sales boomed. Ditko moved from Charlton to DC where he created The Creeper, a demented hero with a cackling laugh. But Ditko quit the Creeper, too, when writer Dennis O’Neil made the character a reformed ex-convict. Once a criminal, always a criminal. A is A. He spent the next 20 years as a jobbing artist for anyone who needed him. His most notable creation from that period was probably Squirrel Girl, back at Marvel, while still producing Mr A. and other Objectivist screeds for small presses. When journalists sought him out he usually slammed his office door in their faces. He retired in 1998, but set up a company to reprint his old comic book work that had fallen out of copyright, and continued publishing his Objectivist work.
Ditko not only brought a rare expressionist sensibility to comics, he was a crucial part in the creation of their new respectability; a step forward for the art-form. What Marvel gave us in the Sixties was certainly as adult, and much more compelling, than the sitcoms, shoot ‘em ups, and soap operas mainstream popular culture was offering. It was no surprise that those who had grown up with those comics would turn them into mass-market spectacles. Hollywood brought Doctor Strange to the screen, spending $235 million to recreate the imagination Ditko drew for $20 a page for comics that cost 12 cents an issue. Ditko remained a recluse, working in a small office in mid-town Manhattan, though reportedly receiving some income from the films of his creations. He worked until the end, reliant only on himself, true to his beliefs. Steve Ditko, aged 90, lay dead in his apartment for two days before his body was discovered.