A Parting Salute to the Creme de la Creme

News has rapidly spread concerning the passing of comics creator Steve Ditko, and here at The Library of American Comics we mark his passing with a sadness equaled only by our respect for this truly legendary talent.

Ditko’s self portrait, circa 1964

The Hollywood Reporter was first to report this great loss, in a story here, as well as this companion piece. The comics press has since followed up, with coverage at The Beat and Bleeding Cool, among other fine sites.

My first acquaintance with Mr. Ditko’s work came as a young boy. He had already departed the company by the time I started reading Marvel Comics, so my first exposure to Spider-Man was in issues # 53-54 (receiving hand-me-down copies of those two issues); the first Spidey I ever bought once I decided to see if I wanted to become a regular reader was # 63. All three of those issues featured the distinctive touch of John Romita Sr. For me, however, it was a case of “in for a penny, in for a pound,” and in addition to the regular Amazing Spider-Man monthly I also bought the reprint Marvel Tales title effective with issue # 16. This comic (fifty pages of story and art for a quarter!) reprinted Journey Into Mystery (Thor) # 102, Strange Tales (Human Torch solo story) # 113, a Bill Everett “Marvel Boy” story from the early ’50s, and in the deserved lead position, Steve and Stan serving up a Spidey/Human Torch meeting originally published in Amazing Spider-Man # 21.

I was fascinated, entertained by the two heroes’ meetings, even though the villain of the piece (The Beetle) was no great shakes. And this was my first real exposure to significantly different artistic interpretations of a single character, as I contrasted Ditko’s distinctively angular interpretation of Spidey against the crisp, clean Romita-based version (and Ditko’s skinny Johnny Storm to Kirby’s more robust Torch in the pages of Fantastic Four). As I recall, the art in that Marvel Tales Spidey reprint didn’t strike me as bad compared to Romita — but it sure struck me as different!

I would learn how different as I continued to stack up issues of Marvel Tales. Mr. Ditko’s Spider-Man was wiry, nimble, determined — a force to be reckoned with, even as his stories took on an increasingly noirish atmosphere in a plotline featuring the Crime Master and Green Goblin struggling for control of the New York underworld (the artist’s use of lighting was nothing short of brilliant as Spider-Man prowled seedy waterfronts and dingy warehouses).

From Heritage Auctions: original art to the splash page of Spider-Man # 27

By Marvel Tales # 28 the book began reprinting the Steve/Stan Dr. Strange run even as it shifted to reprints of the early Lee/Romita Spider-Man stories. The many alien dimensions visited by Dr. Strange often seemed to dwarf the mystic master, but Ditko always portrayed him as resolute, staunch and fearless, even in the face of seemingly-impossible odds. It was wonderful to contrast Ditko’s original vision of the character and his world[s] with the one being put forth by artists Gene Colan and Tom Palmer in the pages of the ongoing Dr. Strange title, which I was also avidly reading at the time.

Mr. Ditko’s work made an indelible impression on me, and with the passage of time I’ve come to appreciate all the more how dynamic his characters seem to be, and the great job he does of allowing them to express a full gamut of emotions. Peter Parker’s many joys and frustrations — the arrogance of Flash Thompson and, later, Harry Osborn — Stephen Strange, his cloak of levitation billowing behind him, jumping headlong into a new, phantasmagorical wonderland we could never have imagined without Ditko mapping it out for us … and, originally, I got it all for the bi-monthly cost of a quarter.

The Many Worlds of Doctor Strange, from, Strange Tales # 138

I followed Mr. Ditko’s work for decades, eventually reading his efforts with The Question, Mr. A, The Creeper, those exceptional horror shorts for the Warren magazines, and other stops that included his eventual return to Marvel, working on titles such as Rom Spaceknight and Machine Man. I join many in acknowledging the great joy I derived from his many unique pages of comics output, and I mourn the loss of one of this artform’s true Giants. It was especially jarring to learn we lost Mr. Ditko so close to the loss of writer/scenarist/sometimes-comics-fan-and-pro Harlan Ellison.

As was the case with Mr. Ellison, I believe the best way to honor Mr. Ditko is to take some time from our busy schedules and read some of the man’s stories. Like many of my generation, I have any number of Ditko stories on my bookshelves from which to choose, but for those not so fortunate, comics shops and on-line booksellers have a variety of different reprint volumes available. My opinion is that you will make a wise investment of both money and time to either discover Ditko for the first time, or to rediscover him if you’ve been away for a while.

Of course, many of the characters he helped bring to life continue to be published today, Spider-Man foremost among them. I’ll therefore humbly note that in early July I did a lengthy interview with Brad Douglas, who turned it into a podcast available at the Spider-Man Crawlspace website. If you’d care to listen to Brad and I chat for almost two hours on a variety of subjects Spider-related, you’ll find the discussion right here. As you’d expect, Brad has also devoted space on the site to Mr. Ditko’s passing; visit The Crawlspace’s landing page to see that coverage.



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