Steve Ditko, the comic book artist and storyteller who inspired millions with his illustrations of, among others, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, The Question, and Mr. A., passed away on June 29, 2018. He was ninety years old. Although his work covered the gamut of genres—crime, horror, science fiction, mystery, war, westerns, romance, and humor—the greatest values of his corpus are his depictions of morally consistent heroes.
Ditko’s easy-to-follow, exciting stories drew me in as a child, as they did so many. Integrated into his stories were moral lessons that appealed to me during my teens, as I strove to become my own person. These are what gave his characters and stories staying power. Ditko’s artistic prowess and philosophic vision continue to inspire me today.
Ditko was an intensely private person who let his work do his speaking. As he put it, “I never talk about myself. My work is me. I do my best, and if I like it, I hope somebody else likes it, too.”1 But his life is worth examining, because he modeled the values that animated his characters.
Steve was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on November 2, 1927. As a child, he admired comic book heroes—especially Batman. By age thirteen, he decided to become a cartoonist. After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. military and was stationed in postwar Germany. Still, he managed to continue working toward his ultimate goal by drawing comics for the Army newspaper.2
In 1950, Ditko moved to New York to study under one of his heroes, Batman artist Jerry Robinson, at the Cartoonist and Illustrators School (later named the School of Visual Arts). He honed his craft under Robinson’s guidance, developing his ability to portray perspective, composition, anatomy, drapery, light and shade. He also learned about storytelling.
Ditko launched his professional career in 1953, accepting a job in the studio of Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The superhero era of the 1940s had faded in popularity, and horror-themed comic books had become the rage. Ditko’s first published works were cover illustrations for titles such as This Magazine Is Haunted and Strange Suspense Stories.3
A few years later, Ditko went to work for Stan Lee of Timely (soon to become Marvel) Comics, where he illustrated science fiction and fantasy stories. Their breakthrough success came in August 1962, when Spider-Man first appeared on the cover of Amazing Fantasy #15.
Before Spider-Man, superheroes such as Superman, Batman, and Captain America had similar costume designs: a partially covered (or open) face, briefs, and boots. Lee first approached Jack Kirby to design Spider-Man, but Kirby followed this same costume format, so Lee turned to Ditko, who tried something new. Spider-Man’s mask fully covered the timid teenager Peter Parker’s face. His full-body, skintight outfit, with sticky hands and footwear, allowed him to climb surfaces.
Audiences loved Spider-Man’s me-against-the-world attitude. And instead of using brute strength like other superheroes, Spider-Man’s clashes with villains emphasized fluidity and grace combined with a keen intellect.
Ditko created some of his finest artwork in Amazing Spider-Man issues thirty-one through thirty-three, the Master Planner sequence. At one point, Spider-Man is trapped under piles of heavy machinery as water drips over him. The serum that will save his aunt’s life is just out of reach. He blames himself for failing her and looks completely dejected. He knows he can’t close his eyes because, if he does, he will black out and die. The weight of the world is on his shoulders. Then, à la Atlas, he slowly lifts the machinery, saves his aunt, and the arc of the series ends triumphantly as Peter Parker ascends from adolescence to manhood.4
In July 1963, Ditko created Dr. Strange, the brilliant surgeon whose car accident caused neurological damage that ended his medical career. With momentous effort, Dr. Strange develops extraordinary powers but becomes an outcast in the process. He endures solitude while fighting off a multitude of supernatural menaces and repeatedly saves the world. (Ditko’s portrayal of different dimensions in this comic led some to speculate that he was taking LSD. However, several of his coworkers confirm that the art came straight from Ditko’s imagination, not drugs.)
Despite the growing popularity of his comics, Ditko was not content. By the mid-1960s, tension had developed between Lee and Ditko. Lee had withheld from Ditko proper credit for the stories and characters that he had originated. But more important, Ditko’s ideas about the very essence of their work had evolved. Lee maintained the Greek mythological view that all heroes have an Achilles’ heel: a tragic flaw that eventually leads to their demise. This was unacceptable to Ditko, who had come to hold that art should portray the ideal—man at his best. He wanted to create a comic book hero like none ever seen before, one who was morally consistent and philosophically grounded.
So he left Marvel in 1966 and, the following year, created a new character: The Question, published by Charlton Comics. Wearing a featureless mask fused to his face by a chemical gas, The Question’s primary power resided in knowing what is right and choosing to act on that knowledge. Unlike other characters, he held no contradictions and thus, he was not wracked by inner conflict. In one of The Question’s most famous scenes, he kicks two criminals into the city sewer system. When they beg for mercy, he tells the rats that they are sewage and deserve what they get, refusing to help.
The Question’s ruthless justice was unheard of. The editors at Charlton feared pressure from the Comics Code Authority. The series lasted only five issues under Ditko’s pen. Years later when DC Comics bought out Charlton, they revived The Question, but the newer, sarcastic, zen-like character lacked Ditko’s sense of justice.
Ditko never looked back. He now knew that bringing his creative vision to life required an independent publisher. He chose Wallace Wood’s witzend as the platform for his next creation: Mr. A. Unlike other comic heroes, Mr. A. had no superpowers. He crusaded against the underworld of criminals armed with nothing but a pair of metal gloves, a steel mask, and an unmitigated commitment to justice.
This last was fully demonstrated in Mr. A.’s introductory story, in which Ditko also violated the Comics Code’s prohibition on excessive violence. On the first page, a teenager named Angel robs a jewelry store and then clubs a cop to death. Next, he stabs his accomplice as well as his bleeding-heart teacher, Miss Kinder, who feels sorry for him because he never had a chance. Mr. A. knocks Angel off a roof, leaving him hanging on a flagpole. Miss Kinder pleads with Mr. A. to save Angel, but he carries her away to safety, leaving Angel to fall to his death.5
Ditko’s philosophical evolution was now complete—and completely integrated into his art. Aside from Mr. A. himself, the greatest indicator of this was the comic’s black-and-white illustrations. They were a visual reminder of the principle that animated Mr. A. That is, morality is absolute, black and white. We all must choose between good and bad. There is no compromising with evil.
Unlike his previous creations, Ditko retained the rights to Mr. A. and continued writing stories about his ideal hero up until his death.
After the character was well established, Ditko did something unprecedented. He recorded an explanation of the principles on which Mr. A. was based, describing what made his kind of heroes essentially different from more popular comic characters:
Mr. A. is based on Ayn Rand’s theory of justice, on Aristotle’s law of identity, his definition of man, and his view of art. Aristotle said that art is philosophically more important than history. History tells how men did act. Art shows how men could and should act . . . .
The perfect hero on principle says yes to a true identity and no to a contradictory one. Ruled by justice he treats every identity as it deserves. He is the actualized potential for good in its purest form. A true moral measuring ruler, he is the most human and deserving of respect. . . .
Today’s heroes are superior in physical strength, but common, average, ordinary in mental strength: rich in superpowers but bankrupt in reasoning powers. They are perfect in overcoming the flawed supervillains, saving the world, the universe, yet helpless to solve their common, ordinary, average personal problems. It is like creating a perfectly physical adult with the reasoning limits of a six-year-old.6
For Ditko, being alive meant creating his kind of world through art. In 1973, he published Avenging World, a sort of sequel to Mr. A. that includes one of his landmark illustrations. This masterpiece, “The Reality,” is a visual representation of rational philosophy and the world it makes possible. It depicts a man dwarfed by a futuristic skyscraper representing “Progress.” Its foundation is made up of “Knowledge,” “Science,” “Business & Industry,” which in turn rest on “Justice,” “Rights,” “Logic,” “Facts,” and “Reality.”
Beginning in 1988, Ditko and his longtime collaborator, Robin Snyder, began publishing their own work. From ages eighty to ninety, he created his 32-Page Series, which included characters such as The Hero, The Cape, Miss Eerie, Madman, and The !? In addition to creating heroes who held that ideas and actions have consequences, Ditko excelled at portraying villains, particularly those in the act of evasion, replete with sweat-streaked faces of anguish. Ditko also included in the Series essays on philosophy and other late-life works.
Though they represented the pinnacle of his work, Ditko’s unmitigated moral giants never achieved the fame of his earlier characters. Of course, fame wasn’t Ditko’s aim. He aimed to create art that “shows how men could and should act,” heroes who don’t have tragic flaws, and a universe where justice triumphs—and he succeeded. Thank you, Steve Ditko.
To hear Ditko explain the principles on which Mr. A. is based and see some of his artwork, check out this video:
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1. Steve Ditko, The Ditko Collection, vol. 1, edited by Robin Snyder (Thousand Oaks, CA: Fantagraphics Books, 1985), i.
2. Blake Bell, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books), 14–15.
4. Bell, Strange and Stranger, 66.
5. Bell, Strange and Stranger, 110–11.