Steve Ditko – Comicdom’s Greatest Iconoclast

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Comic book creator Steve Ditko, who has died at the age of 90, was often described as ‘eccentric’, ‘aloof’, a hermit-like character who shunned publicity and instead shut himself away in his studio. In 2007, a whole BBC documentary was built around the fact that he refused to be interviewed by Jonathan Ross – though some might argue that this simply proved that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Other people have written of their encounters with Ditko in his latter years, most of which sooner or later led to a fall out. The legend of Ditko the man, huddled away and working on his increasingly personal and politicised self-published comic books, seemed at times to overwhelm his actual work. Yet it says something that even before his death, most of the comic book world still held him in high esteem, despite the fact that he was an avid supporter of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, ideas held as anathema by most liberals. Other people have been thrown to the wolves for less, and it’s a tribute to just how important Ditko’s work was that his fans were willing to overlook these ideals and instead simply see them as another part of his eccentricity and grumpy-old-man style misanthropy.

There is no overestimating Ditko’s importance to modern popular culture. Leaving aside thorny issues about who did what exactly – always points blurred by memory and personal bias – let us just say that alongside Stan Lee, he created many of the characters that have become iconic in both comic books and, more recently, cinema. His most enduring character was, of course, Spider-Man – for whom he certainly came up with the costume that was unlike any other superhero until that time and, dare we say it, remains the single greatest comic book visual creation (if pushed, we’d struggle to decide between  Spider-man and Judge Dredd, but let’s not get into such arguments now). Ditko also created some of Spider-Man’s best-loved villains, like the Lizard, the Green Goblin and Dr Octopus. But much as I love Spider-Man, for me the most visually impressive work Ditko did in the early 1960s was on Dr Strange – a far less interesting character, certainly, but one that allowed wild flights of surreal fantasy that were unlike anything we’d seen before. It was no surprise that the character became a favourite of the burgeoning hippy movement, who saw genuine psychedelia in Ditko’s work. He was not, however, a drug user, and probably had little time for hippies.

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Ditko quit Marvel in 1966, for reasons that have never been fully explained beyond a falling out with Stan Lee, and moved to Charlton where he created characters like The Question, before going fully independent in 1967 to create Mr A, a character that reflected fully his Objectivist ideas as a vigilante who saw everything in terms of good or evil – no grey areas for him. Mr A, would become an ongoing character between Ditko’s mainstream work, which involved stints at DC, Atlas, Eclipse and others, time back at Marvel and eventually his retirement from the comics mainstream in 1998. Latter-day and lesser loved characters included The Creeper and Shade the Changing Man.  But it was in his ‘retirement’ years when Ditko did his most personal and eccentric work, including the 2008 essay/comic book The Avenging Mind. He spent his time beavering away in his Manhattan office, occasionally bothered by fans and journalists, who he apparently dealt with politely but firmly. While he claimed to have seen no money from the Spider-Man films, the evidence suggests that he received regular royalty cheques, and these doubtless helped him to carry on creating his own esoteric books that were sold to a small but enthusiastic fan base.

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Certainly, despite unfashionable political views and an anti-social attitude, Ditko continued to be held in high esteem by the modern-day comic book stars. Perhaps his shunning of publicity and his determined belief in what he believed seemed oddly admirable, even to those who constantly crave publicity and follow the flow of public opinion. Perhaps they secretly wish that they could be like Ditko – or at least their idea of Ditko, the uncompromising artist following his vision no matter what. Perhaps they just realised, for one shining moment, that we can all have different ideas, and that we can’t judge art by the artist, even when both are fully entwined. In the end, Ditko should be celebrated for his place in pop culture history, and for his bloody-minded devotion to his art. As much as his creations have been twisted, bastardised and made inestimably duller over recent decades, they remain hugely important. And as a creator, he sets an example to us all. Do your own thing, stick with what you believe and don’t waste time chasing fame.

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