As part of the promotion of the documentary “In Search of Steve Ditko” Jonathan Ross wrote an article for the UK newspaper The Guardian in 2007. It explains why he did the documentary and what compelled him to fly to New York and confront the artist – where in my opinion the risks far outweighed the benefits. It’s a great read which oddly enough develops into it’s own mini-climatic story.
As a kid I had only one real love. I liked movies more than anyone else I knew, apart from maybe my mum, and she drew the line at Death Race 2000. I had a passion for watching just about anything on TV as long as it didn’t involve people chasing balls or riding horses and cars faster than each other. Even long after puberty had made those little changes it visits on all young men, I didn’t really get into the idea of sex for quite a while. But the earliest, the first love of my life was comic books. In particular, American comic books, and, to be yet more specific, American comic books published by Marvel. There were only two major publishers, Marvel and DC, but DC books always seemed a little square. Too neat, too tidy, too straitlaced. DC had Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman – all characters who had been born in the late 30s and early 40s and were beginning to show their age. Marvel was more of the moment: cool and freewheeling in its house style, as editor-in-chief Stan Lee shot the breeze like a hip uncle, and in the art – mostly raw and rough and powerful – and, of course, in the characters themselves.
I fell completely in love with Lee’s writing, especially when it was paired with the art of the great Jack Kirby. Together they gave the world the Hulk, the Avengers, the X Men, the Mighty Thor and the Fantastic Four, all of which bristled with mad energy and wild ideas and gripped the imagination of the puny little geek that I was. But it was the work Lee created with another, less prolific artist during the golden years of Marvel that really burned into my consciousness. That artist’s name was Steve Ditko, and together they created Dr Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, and a character you just might have heard of: Spider-Man.
Ditko’s art is genuinely unique. Some artists are masters at exaggerating the body – the greats like Kirby, Jim Steranko and Neil Adams, all of whom can draw a figure in two dimensions yet somehow create the illusion that they are bursting right out of the panel – the page, even – in glorious 3D. In that respect, Ditko was a little more restrained. His characters look more like they are dancing, or carrying off an especially difficult gymnastics routine – they have grace and poise and finesse rather than brutal strength and power. But the faces really tell the story. Ditko draws expressions better than anyone. They can look quizzical or delighted, they can look bored or thoughtful, mildly bothered or furious to the point of aneurysm. And once the stories get going, the faces go crazy – eyes bulging, sweat dripping, mouths wide in terror.
And his backgrounds are tremendous. He redefined New York in those early issues of Spider-Man – for the first time in the history of the genre placing one of these crazy outfitted superfreaks in a recognisable, modern, real city. He was equally adept when it came to the fantastic, creating for Dr Strange fabulously imagined dimensions that earned him a following throughout the 60s from acid freaks who were convinced that Sturdy Steve was dropping tabs while sketching for Marvel. Not true, of course, but the fact that he came up with these landscapes and characters while totally straight and sober was understandably difficult to grasp.
If Ditko had just gone on creating page after fabulous page of artwork for Spider-Man and Dr Strange, he would most certainly be better known than he is now – and definitely a lot better off. After all, Spider-Man alone is a billion-dollar global industry. But after co-creating Spider-Man and illustrating his debut in Amazing Fantasy 15, as well as the first 38 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, he quit.
Ditko never gave a reason for leaving one of the most popular comic books of all time. Many believe he fell out with Stan Lee over the secret identity of the Green Goblin. Others, myself included, believe that Steve felt he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved as joint creator of the world-famous wall-crawling hero. Even today, if you ask someone who created Spider-Man, the majority will say Stan Lee, and the resentment I have felt towards Lee – another boyhood hero – for never really coming out and insisting that Ditko get his due has always lingered. When I finally got to confront Stan the Man for this weekend’s documentary about Steve Ditko, it was just about the most difficult moment in an interview I’ve ever had to face up to.
Post-Marvel, the mystique surrounding Ditko began to grow. His refusal to give interviews or to state why he bailed out just as Spider-Man was on the verge of becoming the biggest-selling comic in America only increased the fans’ curiosity. He went first to Charlton Comics, a small outfit based in Connecticut, and then surfaced at DC comics, where he created two of the weirdest books of the period. The first was The Creeper, about an oddball maniac whose costume came from a fancy-dress store and was finished off with a red rug on his back. The second was The Hawk and the Dove, a strange peace-v-war debate dressed up in superhero tights, which was presumably an attempt to appeal to the newly politicised students of the Vietnam era, but came from a right-of-centre perspective.
Neither was a big enough hit to keep Ditko at DC or to keep the books in print, and since then he has bounced around from publisher to publisher, creating books and intriguing characters, then suddenly leaving. Small independent companies published several of his characters, and it is in those books that you can most clearly see Ditko’s world-view expressed. As an advocate of the philosopher Ayn Rand, Ditko is a believer in objectivism, that peculiar school of thought that promotes hardline capitalism and the pursuit of individual, self-serving goals and personal happiness as the only legitimate and rational way forward for the human race. Hence such characters as Mr A, for example, a Randian vigilante dressed all in white and doling out a brutal, uncompromising form of justice. In the universe that Mr A inhabits there is good, there is evil, and there is nothing in between. Mr A not only perfectly illustrates the nutty extremism of objectivism but also perfectly sums up why Ditko is such an anomaly in the world of comics. If compromise is an unacceptable evil, how on earth can you work for big companies that are always going to insist on doing things their way, regardless of what a character’s creator wants?
I continued to buy Ditko’s work, and continue to love it, even as he bounced between the borderline lunacy of his small-press political rants and the slowly diminishing return that his superhero work provided. Because once you begin to absorb his drawings, once you fall in love with that beautiful line-work, the shading, the anatomies and those remarkable faces, well, you never really stop. And part of me loves him just as much for his extreme take on the world – his refusal to do things any way other than his way, and his decision never to talk about the past in print, never to press his association with those early characters even if that means missing out on the mountains of cash they now generate.
In short, the simple fact that Ditko had never, ever given an interview intrigued and challenged me. Would he talk to me? Would he give me an interview? And if he did, would that make him seem like a saner, more easily understood human, or would it just ruin the myth that had grown up around him?
I’m in New York, standing outside the office of my greatest hero. I know he’s inside because I called ahead and spoke to the great man. Now in his 80s, he was polite but firm. “Don’t come by,” he said. “I’m too busy. I don’t have anything to say to you. But thank you.” I have decided, perhaps unwisely and rudely, to ignore him. I need to know!
So there I stand, on the final days of shooting my love-letter to and investigation into the strange life and work of the great Steve Ditko. And my hero has told me not to knock. But I owe it to comic fans the world over who want to hear, at last, from Ditko himself. I owe it the BBC, who have kindly allowed me to take a crew over to New York to see this thing through. Perhaps most importantly, I owe it to my 14-year-old self. So, of course, I knock …