Sunday, 8 July 2018


I've had the sad pleasure of writing Steve Ditko's obituary for the Guardian; it's online now here and should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, but there is so much else to say about Ditko that I could not get into the word limit, and that would probably be considered too esoteric for the Guardian readership.

Ditko's work in those 50s Atlas/Marvel comics and elsewhere was a great honing ground for his later super-hero work.  See the illustration left; he would have made a fine illustrator for Edgar Allen Poe or HP Lovecraft. The expressiveness of his faces, no matter how stylised, was the key to his success with the early Spider Man, as I wrote, but it was not just Peter Parker's hesitant teen--it was Aunt May's worry and Jonah Jameson's bullying bluster. His villains registered enjoyment of their evil--it's how one as absurd as the Green Goblin could work (see also The Creeper).

Ditko also drew other Marvel heroes: his Bruce Banner emphasizes the Peter Parkerish nature of his wimp personality--this was not Superman combing back his spit curl and putting on a pair of smart-guy glasses. I would have liked to discuss the difference in Spider Man after Ditko left and John Romita took over: Romita's faces are more perfect; his women actually beautiful. His Peter Parker was more of a heroic figure before he becomes Spider Man. Romita, who came to Spidey from Daredevil, was adept enough with action, but something more primal was lost. Of course the books immediately increased in popularity. It reminded me of when the underrated Don Heck took over from Jack Kirby on The Avengers; Heck's work reminded me of John Prentice on Rip Kirby, in the Alex Raymond school: his faces were cleaner, and his action more subdued.

And of course there was nothing like Dr Strange, which quickly became my favourite Marvel. I made the point that youngsters thought Ditko must be tripping when he drew the comic, and nothing was further from the truth. By the way, the Guardian using 'hippy' for 'hippie' is one of their bizarre 'style guide' decisions: the guide appears to have been written by someone who spent the Sixtys (sic) locked in a teletype room trying desperately to save received English from American encroachments. Correcting a neologism? What next, yuppy as the singular of yuppies? 

Charlton Comics ran out of Derby, Connecticut, not far from where I grew up. They were one of the town's big industries in the dying Housatonic Valley (Wham-O, makers of Frisbees and Whiffle Balls, were another, in Shelton) and they were in the comics business mostly to keep their printing presses busy. But they were a great proving ground for talent--the story is that Ditko introduced Dick Giordano to DC, where he eventually became the editor. Some was local talent, like the great Batman artist Jim Aparo, who came from nearby Hartford, and the amazing Joe Gill, who wrote twice as much as Stan lee twice as fast. Charlton was also the place where my college buddy Wayne Howard, who had been an assistant to Wally Wood, worked and became the first artist to get a name credit in the title.

The Question remains one of my favourite comics characters, especially before he went over the top: he predated the Pauline Kael/Dirty Harry 'fascist' controversy. I remember Mr. A from Wood's Witzend, to which I subscribed, and I found it funny in a strange way--thinking perhaps Ditko had gone off the rails. This was before I realised there were actually people who took Ayn Rand seriously, which was just before those people starting trying to control the world.  The Question has appeared in DC's animated Justice League TV series; a movie is frequently rumoured. Dennis O'Neil did a nice job with an update of Ditko's series; I think it's time I wrote a Question novel.

The Jonathan Ross BBC4 documentary is a good one, even if Ross' smugness at not revealing anything Ditko said to him irritated me at the time and still does. You can find it on You Tube here. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman's contributions make it work, but there's also nice stuff from Jerry Robinson and Stan Lee, as well as a couple of later Marvel staffers.

Trying to divide the kudos for Marvel's success is pointless, though we might have wished the financial rewards to fall to Kirby and Ditko as they deserved. John Romita, in the Ross doc, makes the point that Ditko wasn't really interested in money; like a ranch hand he wanted an honest day's pay for his work.

For all that Kirby and Ditko and others may have shouldered the lion's share of the creative burden at Marvel, it was Lee's ability to sense out the market that drove the company forward, that attracted and kept casual fans as well as those entranced by the remarkable work of great artists. Ditko in many ways is the greatest of them, certainly the most mysterious, and most enigmatic. RIP


Anonymous said...

Your link would go to an entry entry on this blog, if it wasn't missing an 'i'. Here's the Guardian obit:

Michael Carlson said...

coorrected thanks

Peter Judge said...

I got a correction to the obituary via Facebook. Squirrel Girl was Marvel, not DC..

Son Of The Dragon said...

Nice write up. would have loved to have seen Ditko's interpretations of Poe, Edgar Allan not Allen. I think we got a taste of it in his Creepy and Eerie Magazine illustrations.

Michael Carlson said...

Squirrel Girl has been correct at the Guardian online. Creepy and Eerie were incredibly good: Archie Goodwin is one of the unsung greats of that era....