Meet Steve Ditko, the unknown creator of comic Spider-Man
Published: Friday, May 2, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 1, 2014 at 5:32 p.m.
Stan Lee suggested 50 years ago that the next issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” feature a supernatural villain named the Green Goblin. Steve Ditko liked the name, but wanted to avoid magic in Spidey’s world.
As Marvel Comics’ editor, Lee completed dialogue and captions for a half dozen freelance artists. Ditko, at 33, five years Lee’s junior when they launched Spider-Man in 1962, ignored the boss and made his Green Goblin a guy in a costume. This began two years of disagreements about their mystery villain, exacerbated because a few months later, Ditko took over plotting, and the two only communicated in notes.
Pockets of enthusiastic applause greeted Ditko’s name 12 years ago, when the Green Goblin was in the first big-screen Spider-Man movie. His fan community preceded Spider-Man, and continued after he left. His impact on the comic-book medium has been huge. Alan Moore’s 1985 graphic novel “The Watchmen” (frequently cited among the century’s 100 greatest novels) owed much of its appeal to his versions of two Ditko creations, Captain Atom (Dr. Manhattan) and The Question (Rorschach).
Today, seeing Ditko’s name in credits is no longer enough for the artist’s fans. Another Spider-Man movie has opened and such fans want you to know what Ditko did to create what a long-ago caption called, “the Hero who could be You.”
In their eyes, the public generally thinks Stan Lee created Spider-Man, some even thinking his creation included initial drawings. Ditko is generally unknown, and woefully less rewarded monetarily than his collaborator.
“I’ve decided to help Steve Ditko by taking the time to once a week write a reporter that puts out a story about the upcoming Spider-Man movie,” the comic-book artist Stephen Bissette (best known for collaborating with Moore on the ’80s Swamp Thing) wrote a year ago. He wants to “get the attention of Marvel/Disney,” and his goal is that the entertainment company give the artist the same kind of “creator salary” that DC Comics owner Warner communications eventually paid the Superman creators after the first of the Christopher Reeve movies premiered. Even before that, he said earlier this week, publishers need to start including author royalties into their budgets when they lavishly collect Ditko’s old stories into hardback volumes.
A graphic artist who uses the fan name Robby Reed to author the “Dial B for Blog” website, has devoted the past week to a multi-part “Secret Origin” to Spider-Man. As a clearing house, Reed’s presentation is exhaustive. Among other things, he uses fanzine and mainstream media interviews with various individuals, memos that have circulated over the years, and a series of articles Ditko wrote for the independent publisher Robin Snyder’s comics-history newsletter to sort out almost every official version of authoring the series.
Plots are the key to questions about who gets credit. Even before he took over plotting and quit having story conferences with Lee, Ditko worked with two or three sentences of what movie people would call high concepts.
Ditko would design the characters, most conspicuously a self-portrait from his own teen years who donned a full body stocking to hide his age and general nerdiness. Ditko then laid full stories of pencil art. Despite an absence of the supernatural content that typified his other Marvel hero, Dr. Strange, the pencils had an abstract quality. He paid strict attention to proportion, perspective, the rhythm of a panel, the rhythm of panels grouped on to a page. After the dialogue and captains were lettered, Ditko would supply much of his realistic detail inking the pencils into camera-ready illustrations.
He understood visual storytelling. “Writers like to write about huge, gigantic things: Doors, statues, crowds, etc.,” Ditko wrote in a 2002 essay. “Then they expect the oversized things to be combined effectively with human-size characters.” Few of Spider-Man’s villains were larger than life. Large as life was large enough.
His exit from Spider-Man, his penchant for privacy and the political nature of a lot of his later work provided the basis for a second slight, that Ditko is some kind of misanthropic, self-defeating eccentric who hates his past and is most interested in promoting his conservative politics.
“When I was researching my book,” says Sean Howe, author of “Marvel comics: the Untold Story,” “I talked to quite a few people who knew him. They all remembered him as intelligent, hard-working, friendly, principled. He had conservative politics, but he didn’t press them on people. I really didn’t hear anything about the cranky ideologue that had grown to be his image.”
One “eccentricity” endured: Ditko’s intricate planning. The mystery villain provides a good example. While Lee believed the Green Goblin’s identity to be an open topic, Ditko slowly introduced into the back story a man in a business suit, Daily Bugle advertiser, club member with Peter Parker’s boss, father to one of Peter’s classmates, and business partner to a scientist from whom he stole an assortment of weapons and rideable rockets. Ditko quit, and his replacement John Romita realized — and told Lee — that Norman Osborn was the solution to their “mystery villain” storyline. Osborn is the behind-the-scenes villain in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
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