“Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko” by Blake Bell
Steve Ditko was one of the greatest artists from the “Silver Age” of comic books in the 1960s. After illustrating the horror and suspense comics that were prevalent in the 1950s, Ditko, along with Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee, created two of the most iconic characters of the Silver Age: Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.
Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is a fascinating history of Ditko’s art and how it was shaped by his philosophy of life and his frequent artistic differences with his editors. These “stories behind the stories” provide intriguing insights into the narratives and images of a career that stretched from the 1950s through the Silver Age until sputtering out in late 1990s.
Shy, quirky, and deeply principled, Ditko was heavily influenced by the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, which views man as a heroic being whose aim is to seek his own happiness through productive achievement and rational thinking. Ditko’s Randian beliefs are reflected in many of this works, forming the moral underpinnings of his costumed superheroes in the early years and later driving his work toward more explicit political tracts.
Spider-Man may have been the first comic I collected with a passion. Not content to wait for the next issue to arrive at the local five-and-dime, I sought out friends who had previous issues stashed away that they were willing to trade or sell. The tales in the first two issues of The Amazing Spider-Man always seemed slightly anomalous compared to the later stories I had read. In the first issue, Spider-Man saves an astronaut, the son of newspaper publisher (and Spider-Man nemesis) J. Jonah Jameson. The scenes with Spider-Man out in space, trapping the astronaut’s capsule with his web, always seemed rather odd. In one of the two stories in the second issue, Spider-Man confronts evil space aliens. Although as a youth I never questioned the plots, these tales seemed out of sync with the world portrayed later stories, which is firmly based in the real world in and near New York City.
Bell recounts how these plot elements reflected the influence writer/editor Stan Lee, who preferred these fantastical motifs. Ditko wanted stories more grounded in reality. Bell quotes Ditko as saying “I preferred that we have Peter Parker/Spider-Man ideas grounded more in a teenager’s credible world.” Ditko derided Lee’s ideas as being “like having a high-school football player in the Super Bowl.”
Ditko went on the have greater control over his major series at Marvel — Spider-Man and Dr. Strange — becoming, according to Bell, “the first work-for-hire artist of his generation to create and control the narrative arc of his series.” Nevertheless, struggles with his writers and editors continued throughout his career. In the later years of the Ditko/Lee relationship at Marvel, the two rarely spoke. Ditko would plot and illustrate the stories and then send the pages to Marvel’s offices where Lee would add the dialog.
After parting ways with Marvel, Ditko worked for a number comic book publishers. He did some of his most highly praised work for Warren Publication’s Creepy and Eerie which, as magazines (rather than comic books) sidestepped the constraints of the Comics Code Authority that limited the material that the comics could portray. As Ditko later bounced around among a number of publishers — Charleton, DC, and even briefly returning to Marvel — the same story frequently played out: Ditko would be at odds with his editors over their approach to the stories and would refuse to compromise his position. In his later years, in an attempt to tell his stories unfettered by editors, he created tales for self-published “fanzines” which had minimal circulation and low production values.
Although Ditko’s audience was shrinking, his later work would have an impact on a new generation of artists. The strident sense of moral justice — often verging of callousness — of Ditko’s later characters like the Question and Mr. A would influence writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller whose work in the mid-1980s would soon eclipse that of Ditko and usher in a new age of comic book anti-heroes.
Like the history of many comic book illustrators who rose to prominence in the Silver Age, Ditko’s story does not end happily. He was unable to find steady work in later years, in part because his artistic style then seemed dated, but more often because he would refuse jobs that were not in accord with his Objectivist views.
After fighting with his former employer Marvel over the ownership of the original art he had created for the company, Marvel capitulated and returned his drawings, which were by then recognized as extremely valuable. Despite his faltering economic circumstances, however, Ditko has refused to sell any of this artwork. A cache of illustrations estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars is reported to be lying in a pile in the corner of his studio.
Ditko reportedly continues to work in his Times Square studio, but has published no new work since 2000.
While Bell is clearly a fan who admires Ditko’s work, his reviews of Ditko’s art avoid the typical fanboy “everything is awesome” approach. Bell takes a critical eye to Ditko’s work, praising the composition and rendering in Ditko’s greatest illustrations (typically from the Sliver Age Marvel comics or Warren Publications’ Creepy and Eerie horror magazines), while criticizing some of his later work which tended to fall back on stock characterizations and panels heavy with preachy text crowding out the artwork.
Lavishly illustrated, the artwork throughout Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is more than just eye-candy. The images are well chosen to illuminate Bell’s points in the text about Ditko’s artistic style or narrative message.
For those who grew up reading the comic books Ditko illustrated, The World of Steve Ditko is a valuable contribution to the history of the medium. By revealing how the stories that many of us read in our youth were shaped by the personal and political struggles of their creators, Bell’s work allows these classic tales to be seen from anew from a deeper historical perspective.
[Update 2012:] Above I wrote, “Ditko reportedly continues to work in his Times Square studio, but has published no new work since 2000.” While this was true when Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko was published, since then new Ditko material has appeared from publisher and long-time collaborator Robin Snyder. A list of these independently-published Ditko works is available on the Steve Ditko Comics Weblog: Ditko Books in Print. In 2012 Steve Ditko turns 85 years old and continues to work in his office near Times Square.