Monday, June 11, 2012


"This is the Steve Ditko Room; it takes three of you to do what Steve Ditko used to do"

A while back I wrote about a comic called Mr A, and mentioned that its creator Steve Ditko is a huge libertarian. He's one of the big three creators that turned Marvel from a little company to a mega corporation. Between Ditko, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby, Marvel created some of the most fascinating, unique, and bankable characters in human history. Stan Lee was the primary driving force, but without the art and ideas of Ditko and Kirby, he would have had nothing but ideas.

And it was Steve Ditko who came up with Spider-Man's costume. Its difficult to understand this today, but that costume was revolutionary and even shocking when it first appeared. No hero before* that had ever had a mask that covered their entire face (more on that in a moment) The design was radical as well, there were no shorts on the outside, the gloves were just part of the design, and it was fancier than most, with the webbing. It was unique, iconic, and has remained the same for more than four decades, with a only brief shift to a black design in the mid 80s.

The entire look of Spider-Man, his villains, his cast (Jameson, Aunt May, Mary Jane, etc) was done by Steve Ditko. Even the look of the city, the way Spider-man moves, the webbing, all of it was his imagery, and it worked. Ditko emphasized the gawky teen-ager look of Spidey, he kept the city gritty and realistic looking, and he made Spider-man look different than the other heroes.

And the next big creation of Ditko, Dr Strange, was even more shocking. His imagery and concepts in that comic were so innovative, unusual, and amazing that people at the time were sure he was on drugs. Hippies loved Dr Strange, they'd get wasted and read the comic because of its astounding look and stories. But Ditko was no stoner, he was simply very imaginative and creative.

And as I said, Ditko was a huge right wing libertarian. He despised the hippies, the drug culture, and the left. That's why J. Jonah Jameson is such a jerk: the news media in a capsule. That's why Spider-Man wears a full mask, its part of the Ayn Randian objectivist concept of a hero. His appearance is irrelevant, he hides himself away from the culture, presenting the incorruptible, untouchable persona under a mask. The objectivist hero is without ego, without personal concern in their work. They do what is right regardless of personal feelings or inclination, focused only on the just and the proper. They simply don't factor into the equation of good versus evil, they only act on it.

Other characters created by Ditko in other companies were the Question (again, full, this time featureless mask), the Creeper, and Mr A himself. They all had completely hidden identities and were very fixated on good versus evil.

Of course Ditko created or helped create a lot of characters, such as the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Shade the Changing Man, Starman, Static, and even the quirky fan favorite Squirrel Girl. Ditko actually created the look of nearly every character in Dr Strange and Spider-Man that we kjnow, from the Lizard to Dread Dormammu, Gwen Stacy to Flash Thompson, The Leader, Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter, Melter, Nightmare, and on and on.

And he quit Spider-Man in 1966, over creative differences and other issues. Jonathon Ross has a terrific documentary on the subject of Ditko's career, but he's such a leftist and misunderstands Randian objectivism so much he laughs at Mr A and thinks he's insane. And he misses the entire point of Ditko's career.

The documentary is really worth watching - I recommend it highly - but Ross doesn't understand something. Just watching or reading The Fountainhead would help make sense of it, but any of Rand's writings help. The main story of The Fountainhead is that the hero won't compromise, won't give in on what he believes to be right, and will not let anyone, under any circumstances, ever force him to change his vision. He will not compromise.

Depending on what you read and hear about the time when Ditko left, he had a problem with the leftist bent of Stan Lee (who loved hippies) and didn't care for the direction of Spider-Man to feature more romance. In any case, he had his vision for what he was doing, and was told to do it differently to sell more, and refused to compromise. So he just left. He went to Charlton and made various creations, and he was given much more leeway there.

Characters such as The Question live on to this day, a fascinating detective concept, in DC's comics. Hawk and Dove, a personification of the Vietnam War debate, started there as well, with the brutal, kind of dumb Hawk and the effete, pathetic Dove. You can tell Ditko wasn't particularly fond of either side of the fight, but at least Hawk gets things done.

Overall, Ditko is a huge creative force and very important for the foundation of Marvel comics and the creation of many of its biggest characters, plus many in DC. The man is a recluse, totally disinterested in publicity and any focus on himself, only on his characters. I can relate to that, I'd rather be ignored and just have people interested in what I create. But if you know or like comics, you can't ignore the incredible impact Ditko had on the medium.

As a commenter noted, the original Atom character had a full mask back in 1940, over 2 decades before Spider-Man was introduced.  So I was wrong, but Spidey is the first major character and the first well-known one.


JoelAT said...

Original Spiderman and Dr. Strange are the driving force for why I read and collect comics. I love this mans work.

Anonymous said...

Al Pratt, the original, Golden-Age Atom, had a full-face-covering mask/cowl from his first appearance in 1940 until 1948. Granted, the Atom never had the huge success or appeal that Spidey would attain, but I present him as a landmark fully-masked hero, established two decades before Webhead's first appearance.

Christopher R Taylor said...

You know I forgot all about him, but you're right those Charleston guys never had the sort of success Spider-Man had right away.