Sunday, October 21, 2012

Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Peter Parker and Me!

One day a man will take you on the high roads; After a time he'll leave you someplace nice
Or tell you where the big boys play. They usually string out their games
In someone's shadow.
----Rod McKuen

Steve Ditko was in no one’s shadow.

It seems that one day a man will ring your doorbell and offer you CELEBRITY!  He will offer you fame and fortune and recognition. He will fight your battles for you and gear up the troops to go after your perceived enemies.

And all you have to do is give him everything you have…your privacy, your intimate moments, your private thoughts, your old artwork, your new artwork and details from events 50 years old.  They want you to show up at conventions and sit and autograph comics that you will sell and sit in on panel after panel examining your work from 50 years ago and dismissing what you are working on now.

Those who take it, love the money and attention, but then complain about the lack of privacy and the wave of criticism.

Those who don’t take it are called eccentric, outsiders, has beens and hard to work with. With their subject out of the limelight, people can write newspaper articles and books saying outrageous things that bring publicity onto themselves knowing their subject will not bother to respond. They will tell you that they tried to get Ditko to cooperate with them, but it is never unconditional. They want something form him: his opinions, his personality and most of all his approval. They’ll lie to you, they have lied to me, and taken my material, said it was theirs, and forgot where it came from. But they will have people who never meet him, write about him, make claims about him and, by keeping him out of it; they seem to validate their own absurd remarks.  This is not journalism; in fact, it is not even common sense.  

They will never understand that some people’s work speaks for itself.

And no one’s work speaks more for itself than Steve Ditko’s.

 Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Peter Parker and Me!

The Marvel age of comics was built on Jack Kirby’s creativity, Steve Ditko’s ingenuity and Stan Lee’s continuity. Jack Kirby gave wonder to the Marvel Universe. Steve Ditko gave it awe. On a journey to the Infinite Kirby took us to the outer reaches of the universe. On a journey to find Eternity Ditko took us into the minds of the Ancient One and Dr. Strange. Kirby externalized the quest for knowledge, Ditko internalize it. As an example, In Dr. Strange’s first adventure in Strange Tales #110, Ditko introduces us to Nightmare, a villain that personifies an anxiety that we all have. Ditko places us in another dimension, one that exists in all of us, one where the laws of physics are not observed. Soon, this will be developed into the intangible home of Dormammu and all that follow. The Hulk is another great example. When Kirby introduced him, his change was caused by external factors, dusk and dawn and later a machine.  Ditko’s Hulk changed for an internal issue, anger management. This made the character unique and disturbingly compelling. Ditko also changed the Bruce Banner. Kirby’s Banner worked for the government and built bombs, Ditko’s Banner was running away from government and trying to prove himself loyal.

To a child in and of the 1960s, at first glance, the sight of a human looking like an insect walking up walls did not seem unique. Simon and Kirby had presented The Fly, for Archie comics in 1958. To say that Spider-Man was connected in any way to this is silly. But to say that Ditko didn’t learn from reading those stories would be really inaccurate. Some of the poses that Spider-Man has in the early issues are not dissimilar from Kirby’s. The Rawhide Kid, a year earlier, had a similar origin to Spider-Man: A teenager, Johnny Bart, was raised by his Uncle Ben and gained great ability as a marksman. Bad guys kill his uncle and Johnny adopts a new identity, The Rawhide Kid, to track them down. Because he is a vigilante, the good guys as well as the bad go after the new hero. Spider-Man combined all these concepts and added a few more. Heck, without Ditko he could have turned out to be Ant-Man!

      I was introduced to Ditko by his short, five page stories in Amazing Fantasy, Tales of Suspense and other Marvel comics. I learned that it did not bode well for you if you appeared too rich or too greedy and appeared on a Ditko splash page. Ditko took an outline by Stan Lee and created a unique mood, style and story line for one of the greatest characters in fiction. Not just in comic book fiction, popular fiction. Ditko made Spider-Man unique, complex and compelling. It was truly a one of a kind artistic achievement. Similar to Clark Kent, bespectacled Peter Parker worked in a great Metropolitan Newspaper and was interested in a co-worker. Yet, Parker was a character no one had ever seen before. The emotional threads that Ditko wove into the story arcs were powerful and unforgettable and you never, ever thought the stories were similar to Superman… or anything else. The interactions Parker had with the cast of characters Ditko introduced made you identity with him and have complete empathy for the character. That’s right; you rooted for a creation of pen and ink. When things seemed to work out with girlfriend Betty you felt good and when trouble began between them you got concerned. When they broke up, it didn’t just break Peter’s heart, it broke yours too.

I was too young when Dr. Strange debuted in Strange Tales #110 and I didn’t get it. The world was askew and the characters didn’t look right. Then one rainy day I reread all of his the published adventures (midway through to the Eternity saga) and realized it was brilliant. Ditko showed that comics were not just for kids but for adults. Dr. Strange’s powers did not come from cosmic rays or radioactive insects. His power was knowledge and how to use it. He read, he studied and he practiced and his stories were about something. Strange read the book of Vishanti (which was on the New York Times best-seller list for 130 years. (1361-1491) It sold 12 books but they didn’t have printing presses then. It was replaced by the “Joy of Flogging” during the Spanish Inquisition.) In Strange Tales #120 (May 1964), Dr. Strange visits a haunted mansion to eliminate its ghosts. This is the last time a New York City doctor ever made a house call.

As a reader, I saw that Marvel, and Stan Lee, threw nothing out. Just as Ditko had reworked the Hulk and Iron Man, I figured he was reworking the magician idea, one with Asian roots, when Dr. Strange appeared in Strange Tales #110. That fit just right into the Marvel Universe. I just assumed that Ditko wanted to re-work Dr. Droom, the mystic hero that appeared in Amazing Adventures #1, drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Ditko. However, I was wrong. We know now that Steve plotted and drew it out and then gave it to Stan. Stan Lee wrote (The Comic Reader #16, 1963) “Well, we have a new character in the works for Strange Tales, just a 5-page filler named Dr. Strange. Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. It has sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him. Twas Steve’s idea; I figured we’d give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much.” The series started off a bit slow, but interesting, as a five page filler. When it grew to ten pages, it allowed stories to become more complex, and characters to be developed as only Ditko could. In fact, the 170 page story (starting in Strange Tales #130) remains a highlight of complexity, emotion and storytelling of the Marvel Age. It became one of the most memorable strips of the era and it helped usher in the concept of longer stories, which evolved into the graphic novel. Dr. Strange was a brilliant character, magical and mystical, with no real history. As his collections have been released in Masterworks and Essentials, I have suggested to people NOT to read Strange Tales #115, the Origin of Dr. Strange, until they have finished the other stories. Unlike many other comics Dr. Strange does not have a back story; no parents, friends, and no baggage. Peter Parker had an uncle and aunt and had lost his parents, Superman came from another planet. Dr. Strange just showed up, just him and The Ancient One. Somehow, this seemed fitting. Dr. Strange graduated from filler to  being the first double feature of the Marvel Age because it was brilliantly done. When the strip went to 10 pages very soon the Hulk and Capt. America completed the other anthology comics. The second features of a Marvel comic were sometimes more interesting than the primary feature and often outlasted it. The Hulk and Dr. Strange outlasted Giant-Man and the Torch.

In the origin story, the only time the good Doctor had a history, we see that he was once a skilled but arrogant surgeon who injured his hands. He learns the mystic arts and seeks redemption for his past life and acts. Redemption was a very common theme in most of Stan Lee’s works. Daredevil, Thor, Iron Man and so many others sought redemption. This of course includes Peter Parker. Although Dr. Strange´s origin now sometimes feels like a vestigial organ, I suspect that Stan Lee must have heard from the fans and felt that an origin story was necessary. My only disappointment with Dr. Strange is that the final issue of Ditko´s epic story seemed to have been rushed. Yet, he must have felt that he owed the fans something like a conclusion and could not leave without one.

To a young reader, Ditko seemed to be the “go to” guy at Marvel. Ditko is a very smart man and he was highly aware of what comics were out there and what was working and what was not. It seemed to me that if something wasn’t working right, they brought it to him to fix. Ditko was able to understand the fundamental nature of the character and even if he changed things, Ditko kept its essence. Ditko took Iron Man, a weapons manufacturer in a bulky, almost leaden costume and made him the sleek, colorful jet setting playboy that he is still today.

Ditko’s work on the Incredible Hulk was frankly incredible. Jack Kirby had said that he had modeled the Hulk after Frankenstein. Perhaps in his looks, but I did not see that in his personality until I read the Briefer Frankenstein of the 1950s. published by Prize Comics (Hmmm). The Hulk behaves very much like that incarnation of the monster and is treated very much the same: An Innocent haunted and hunted by people. At first, the Hulk seemed more like the Werewolf because he turned into an uncontrolled creature at night. In his first five issues there was not much consistency. It was also hard to like Bruce Banner because, like Tony Stark, he was a weapons manufacturer, a brilliant bomb maker. Even in The Avengers, his transformation was inconsistent. In Avengers #3, Banner turns into the Hulk when he is calm and sleeping and back to Banner when he gets upset. When Dick Ayers drew the Hulk (in Tales to Astonish #59 the issue preceding the Hulk series) we see that the cause of Banner’s transformation is simply high blood pressure. The heck with gamma rays… had he stayed away from salt he would have been okay. It was Ditko who gave the Incredible Hulk his anger management problems. While Steve Ditko gave no back story to Dr. Strange, he gave one to Bruce Banner. By introducing Major Talbot he not only gave Banner an adversary but he also gave him a motivator. Talbot accuses Banner of being a communist or working with them. To prove that he is not, to prove that he is a loyal American, Banner now continues his research to make more weapons. We don’t feel that he is doing this absent of consequences, but he is doing it to show that he is loyal. Also he is showing himself that while part of him may be destructive, he is also a worthwhile person.

In contrast to Dr. Strange, Spider-Man had a detailed back story. This indicates that Strange’s lack of one was deliberate. Spidey suffered great consequences from not stopping that burglar. He lost his uncle, and his aunt lost her husband. Their finances were destroyed for years. (But now it can be told. Not only did she get Social Security, but Peter was getting survivors benefits too. In 1965 Aunt May was eligible for Medicare)

In the era of Batman and Dick Tracy where villains were misshapen and often looked like their evil names, Ditko took a different more unsettling route. Most of his villains look like normal people. They just wore masks. Some like the Vulture didn’t even wear masks. Most of his villains, The Green Goblin, the Crime Master, Mysterio, Electro, The Sandman and even the Enforcers looked human. So the real villains in Spider-Man’s world could be your neighbors. 

 This is my Russian blue named Ditko! Her sisters are   
named Lee, Kirby and Gussie!

One of my favorite stories is the “Man in the Crime Master’s Mask!” This was a two-part story that had me guessing for 40 pages. It’s a brilliant concept: a high powered villain being someone no one even knew and therefore no one would suspect. Years later when I would hear these strange rumors that Ditko left Marvel over a conflict about the identity of the Green Goblin, I would also be told that Ditko wanted it to be no one we had ever seen. Ditko would never do that. He would never repeat a theme that he had just done a year earlier. I know that this sounds funny but I think some people don’t actually read the comics so clues are easy to ignore or bypass. For example, Norman Osborn, while holding a rifle threatens to go after some people. I think that was a clue.

 There have been many articles and references over the years regarding Steve Ditko and his identification with Spider-Man and  Dr. Strange. Well, he did name Dr. Strange, STEPHEN didn’t he? Many assume that Ditko identified with his heroes. If so, did J. Jonah Jameson represent, as a cheap, penny pinching publisher who insisted that all stories be written from his point of view, Martin Goodman, or Stan Lee or an amalgam of both? J.J.J. went from being comic relief to a direct threat to Spider-Man. Earlier, J.J.J. just worked in the background to encourage “villains” to stop Spidey. But Stan Lee and Steve Ditko stopped talking to each other about one year before Ditko left Marvel. Ditko would just draw the pages and send them over for Lee’s dialogue. This began about issue #25. This was the first time J.J.J. became the actual face of a villain when he manned the Spider-seeking robot. His goal was not to kill off the character but to stop him. Perhaps  he felt that was just what Goodman and Lee were doing.

By issue #35, Peter Parker is deserted by friends, threatened by unseen enemies and isolated. Steve Ditko was plotting the books by himself and soon there is none of Lee’s exuberance or optimism in the character or the stories.

If there was any regret in Spider-Man for me, it was the way his graduation and entrance to college took place. It was common in comics to have change without really having change, to give the appearance that something is new and different but it kind of stays the same. When Parker went to college, it changed the scenery but it really didn’t change his environment. He still had Flash Thompson in his classroom, antagonistic as always and blonde Liz Allen was replaced by blonde Gwen Stacy. Ditko probably did not want this change because he did not want to lose his characters, so he kept them. You see, what was Flash Thompson, in college on an athletic scholarship, doing in the same science and chemistry classes as (science major) Peter Parker? Well, no one held his ear to the ground to sense what the fans were thinking more than Stan Lee. Comic books began losing their adult male audience since 1945, when W.W.II ended. Now on college campuses Marvel was getting them back. Stan Lee wanted to keep his characters relevant and popular in this new market.

Ditko influenced many artists, but none could ever recreate his world. In fact, since Ditko did not allow many guest appearances, in his letter’s columns, Stan Lee often had to convince readers that the very different world of Dr. Strange was actually part of the Marvel Universe. Ditko was an essential, irreplaceable part of the foundation of the Marvel Age. He was able to take a concept or character, new or old and develop it into something completely fresh and different, even unrecognizable from its first germ of an idea.

Try as I might, I could not find a way to fit this picture of Kirby overlooking Nick Caputo in.


  1. When Kirby said he based the Hulk on Frankenstein, Barry, he was referring to the LOOK of the character. There are panels in the first few issues where a likeness to Karloff is screamingly obvious. Although there is dispute as to who did what, Stan says he had Frankie in mind when he came up with the character - as well as Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, plus the Wolfman.

  2. Barry,

    Perceptive commnents. Far too many feel entitled to Ditko's time, efforts and thoughts. Ditko has produced a body of work that invites commentary and study. Like the best in any medium, his storytelling is worth revisiting and examining. Unfortunately, there are those who are soley interested in taking pot shots at the man; tearing him down and ridiculing him. Gossip and rumor abound, resentment over his not acquiescing to demands for interviews, artwork and advice (ie free assistance) and those who have used his name to promote books and themselves are shocked...SHOCKED when he turns a blind eye towards their "tributes".

    Ditko has had plenty to say over the years about his work and though process in essays, much of it in collaboration with his publisher and friend, Robin Snyder. Robin has been a loyal and devoted supporter of Ditko for decades. He has proven his trust many times over, in ways that others have not. I can understand Ditko being burned over the years and shunning those who proportedly want to "help him". He is far too perceptive an individual to be duped. Like many of us, he has learned his lessons the hard way.

  3. Barry, I meant to say that I'm not totally convinced that Dr Strange wasn't simply a reworking of Dr Droom. Similar name, similar origin, similar Asian appearance for both characters, etc. Ditko couldn't have been unaware of Droom as he'd inked the first one, so perhaps Stan's comments simply refer to the fact that it was Steve's idea to (re)do a black magic themed strip, not that Stan didn't supply Steve with the new character for Steve to plot once he'd expressed his desire to work on such a feature. It's also unlike Stan to slate anothers's work as being not very good, so perhaps he was really referring to his own input into the strip, not Ditko's, as he didn't have much faith in it due to the lacklustre reception of its predecessor. Regardless, the origin seems to be pure Stan, so whoever came up with the idea for Strange, Stan is just as much the creator of him as Steve is (from the public's perception of the character). Don't you think?

    1. I think Stan has been so insistent over the years that every hero character have an origin, that it drove him to 'insert one'... a couple of installments into Dr. Strange...and he did it again with Nick Fury, Agent of SHEILD...much to the chagrin of Jim Steranko. (Note the origin didn't fall in issue #1, but about issue #5, and coincides with Steranko leaving.

    2. To my understanding Steranko decided to leave before issue 5, apparently due to his irritation with Stan's editorial interference with his stories (sometimes to avoid not passing muster with the Comics Code Authority) but it also seems he might have had a problem keeping up with deadlines on the full-length stories. Anyhow, the origin story in issue 5 was a re-hash of the very first Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. story from Strange Tales #135 by Lee & Kirby and to my recall didn't really add anything new to Fury's backstory.
      As to Dr. Strange's origin, I'd guess that was a genuine collaboration between Lee & Ditko. It strongly contrasts with the backstory provided to Hank Pym in Tales to Astonish when Janet Van Dyne was introduced and reference was made to the apparent murder of Pym's first wife by Communists. Now Pym character, had a cause to avenge related to the Cold War, a vengeful motive for his heroic career. Dr. Strange, on the other hand, was shown to have been a very successful but very selfish bastard with no regard for anyone else even after he suffered his tragic event. It was, perhaps, only fear when confronted with powers he couldn't understand weilded by an even greater bastard, Baron Mordo, that prompted Strange's heroic transformation. Lee likely ordered Ditko to come up with an origin, in response to readers' requests; the main question remains was the plot primarily Lee's or Ditko's or did they hash out the various elements together? They were still talking to each at this period. In light of Ditko's later adherence to Ayn Rand's philosophy dedicated to selfish principles, it's very interesting that the two characters most associated with Ditko had origins where the most significant aspects were not obtaining their powers but overcoming their own selfish natures in order to become heroes. This sort of transformation is unique to Dr. Strange & Spider-Man among Marvel's Silver Age heroes. Every other hero, from the FF through DD, including those who started out as villains, essentially become heroes out of a sense of public duty, even if initially motivated by a need to avenge the death of a loved one, as with Daredevil. Even uber-capitalist and playboy Tony Stark doesn't undergo a significant personal transformation when he becomes Iron Man, except to the extent that wearing that heavy metal lifesaving plate around his torso derailed his playboy lifestyle (hmmm, considering he was largely based on Howard Hughes, it's interesting to note that Hughes went from making out with many a gorgeous starlet to paranoid isolation from nearly everyone, while Stark, during the Silver Age at least, likewise isolated himself while pretending that nothing had changed). Based on that alone, I suspect that Ditko had a lot of personal input into the origin of Dr. Strange that would not have been there had Kirby, Heck or anyone else been the artist.

  4. Kid,

    You bring up several points. First, I do think that Stan was open to a “mystical” strip, they had been very common in the 1940s. Actually, Siegel and Shuster had “Dr. Occult” printed before Superman. I really think that Ditko, remembering Droom said to himself, “I could do better.” And he did.

    Stan was always reluctant to go ahead with an idea that wasn’t his, or one that he hadn’t thought out. When Wally Wood authored a Daredevil story, Stan criticized it and Wood in the letter’s column, with much of the same attitude you see here. The major problem here was that the series was only five pages and it was hard to get a lot in. They eventually added important elements to the stories and to the characters and expanded the page count.

    Just as Stan Lee has the original concept of a Spider-Man, Ditko, had the original concept of Dr. Strange. And thy can both take their respective credit for that. But they are absolutely, and without “consideration” the co-creators of the characters. They exist as they do because both men worked on it and, actually, worked so well together.

    I also suspect that the origin was because Stan wanted it. Stan was very conscience of the fans, he took their lettering writing and comments very seriously. He soon learned that fans wanted costumes and origins so he gave it to them. Dr. Strange, like Tony Stark, Daredevil, Peter Parker, were all looking for redemption after obtaining their powers. For this reason, I think that Stan had a lot of input into Strange's origin.

  5. Well, I posted some thoughts yesterday and they vanished into the abyss of the world wide web! Having read both Lee and Ditko's comments and info from fanzines of the time, it looks like Lee asked Ditko to come up with a back-up strip for Strange Tales, possibly requesting a fantasy type series to go along with the title. Ditko likely came up with the magician angle, possibly recalling the earlier Dr. Droom he inked. there have been a number of instances where Ditko improved/reworked established characters: Iron-Man and the Hulk at Marvel and the Blue Beetle at Charlton.

    Ditko likely brought the strip in for Lee to dialouge. Originally Lee was going to call him Mr. Strange, but in a fanzine of the period noted it was too similar to Mr. Fantastic and decided on Dr. Strange instead (since the strip was to be in Strange Tales. I guess it would have be Dr. Mystery if it was in Journey into Mystery). Ditko noted that Lee plotteed many of the early stories, and the origin appears to be very much a Lee concept; the hero with an affliction and the redemption of the character. Ditko also stated that after a period of time when Lee was thinking of cancelling the strip Ditko told him that he could make it work and, probably around the time of the Dormammu storyline, asssumed control of the plotting. Ditko was certainly correct, not only did he make it work, but he developed an unusual, offbeat and one of a kind series that stands the test of time.

  6. Nick, all good points, but you left one thing out. What magic spell did you use to make Kirby sit so quietly behind you?

  7. A couple of patented Ditko mystic hand gestures kept Kirby mesmerized for a short time!

  8. The question is 'though, Nick, would it have worked (or at least worked so well) without Stan Lee's input and dialogue? Remember, nothing that Ditko (or Kirby for that matter) worked on after leaving Marvel came anywhere near emulating the kind of commercial success that he (or they) had with ol' Stanley.

  9. Kid,

    With Dr. Strange I don't think Lee's input was instrumental as far as plotting goes, as evidenced by the early stories, which while entertaining, did not have the creative burst that occured when Ditko began plotting. I don't discount Lee's role though. his dialogue was instrumental in conveying a sense of drama and suspense. Lee also understood that the strip had a different personality than other strips and played down attempts at humor. The Dr. Strange stories from around # 125 till Ditko's leaving are some of the very best comics of that period.

  10. It goes without saying of course, Nick, that the strip would have been just as visually arresting without Stan's scripting. (Roy Thomas scripted one or two, did he not?) However, despite some lovely art on other strips by Ditko, the ones he scripted himself were often a dry read. He tended to be verbose and to preach to the audience, and while verbosity is fine when it's interesting, that's something I feel that Ditko never quite mastered. As with Kirby, his most entertaining work tended to be done in collaboration with Stan. What an artist 'though, eh?

    1. Which Dr. Strange episodes did Roy Thomas script?

    2. I think the Ditko issues that Thomas scripted were Strange Tales 143 & 144. He returned to the series later. (Roy, not Steve.)