I FIRST BECAME acquainted with the work of Steve Ditko when I was a kid. Simon & Schuster had just published ORIGINS OF
MARVEL COMICS. My town was too small to have its own public library, or grocery story for that matter. Thus, each week my
parents trekked to the grocery store in nearby Irwin, with me in tow. It was a different age (though really, not that long ago) when
kids could roam through most towns unescorted, so while my parents filled the shopping cart with the basic four, I filled my
head with library books. It happened that the Irwin library had available a copy of ORIGINS. As I recall, I discovered it quite by
accident, but once discovered, it became a constant source of entertainment. It was within those pages that I was indoctrinated
into the Marvel universe, back when indoctrination was still possible without the use of a 3-D flowchart. I read about the ill-fated
Bruce Banner, whose irradiated caused an incredible transformation into the Hulk. I thrilled to the first adventure of Jack Kirby
and Lee's FANTASTIC FOUR, and learned how Dr. Donald Blake discovered the hammer of Thor and saved humanity from an
extraterresterial race of Stone Men. This was youthful entertainment at its finest and all it took to enjoy was a library card.
Even in my preteen years I found it easy to distinguish Ditko from Kirby. Kirby was a powerful force, an explosion of rock ‘n roll
fury at a time when rock was coming into its own, whereas Ditko’s work bore a looser style more akin to improvisational jazz.
Ditko's figures flowed gracefully across each panel and each face he etched was laden with touches of joy, pain, age, or fury
that made them instantly recognizable to the reader. His renditions of the astral planes through which Doctor Strange traversed
set the standard for out-of-body visuals much as Kirby’s “krackle” effect defined how cartoonists rendered electricity and
magnetic currents. It is unfortunate that Ditko’s tenure at Marvel during the Silver-age was cut short due to creative differences
with writer Stan Lee.
At times I like to envision an alternate universe (or to coin a phrase from Marvel, a “What if…?” world) in which Lee and Ditko
were able to work through their differences and continue to collaborate on Spider-man, Dr. Strange, the Hulk, and other
projects. I’d like to think that Steve and Stan could have crafted the first hundred or so issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and that
those issues would have been as equally exciting as the Lee/Romita run, but fused with the original charm and innocence of
the Lee/Ditko era (i.e., a nerdish “puny Parker” in the spotlight rather than the romance comic pretty-boy-with-muscles look that
defined John Romita's tenure on the series).
I ponder a world where Ditko emerged from his reclusive state to become a larger public figurehead and spokesman for
comics and sequential art while at the same time his talent flourished at Marvel throughout the 60s and 70s and beyond. I'd like
to envision his pen adding to the cache of Marvel’s early horror magazines like DRACULA LIVES and its second wave of comic
titles like THE DEFENDERS, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, and MARVEL TEAM-UP and perhaps even launching new series of his
Ditko did, of course, return to Marvel in the 1980s. However, his work was largely limited to second-tier titles like MACHINE
MAN, MARVEL SPOTLIGHT, and the much-maligned SPEEDBALL series. Not to say that MACHINE MAN wasn't a terrific series.
Indeed it was. Created and conceived by Jack Kirby, and continued by Tom DeFalco and Ditko, MACHINE MAN had the
misfortune of being unleashed at a time when neither Ditko nor Kirby's art was understood by the younger comics-reading
public. Steve’s work on MARVEL SPOTLIGHT included a terrific (albeit short) run of CAPTAIN UNIVERSE stories written by Bill
Mantlo. Captain Universe was first introduced in issue 8 of Marvel’s 1970s series THE MICRONAUTS, by Bill and artist Michael
Golden. The Captain Universe power was transferrable to anyone at any time if the situation warranted it. Thus, each issue
technically featured a different hero. While the concept was unique, it proved to be a pitfall of the series, leaving readers with no
steady cast, and no single protagonist to cheer for month after month. Captain Universe failed to find its audience.
Perhaps Ditko’s longest run on any Marvel series in the ‘80s was, again, done in collaboration with writer Bill Mantlo. When
artist Sal Buscema left ROM: SPACEKNIGHT (due to a personality conflict with Mantlo), Steve Ditko took over the reigns and
produced a run of terrific issues that was highlighted with an all-star cast of guest inkers such as Craig Russell and John
Byrne. And as enjoyable as these stories are, one cannot expect them to measure up to Ditko’s Silver-age work on SPIDER-
MAN and DOCTOR STRANGE.
One final thought about the Lee/Ditko versus Lee/Romita SPIDER-MAN runs. This analysis isn’t meant to detract from the work
of John Romita, whose contemporary style and savvy art directorship certainly helped Marvel increase its sales and market
share (as well as further define industry imprint) throughout the late 1960s and throughout 1970s. Likewise, I’m not seeking to
ignore or belittle Ditko’s many fine projects produced outside of Marvel. To me, however, Ditko (like Kirby) is as much a part of
the Marvel Comics Group iconography as Stan Lee and should be recognized as such. Ditko’s work on SPIDER-MAN, the
HULK, etc., has, deservedly so, ensured him a place in our industry’s history, though I'm of the belief that it would have been
even sweeter to the mainstream fan had we gotten to see a bit more of it.
March 5, 2006
W h a t i f S t e v e D i t k o . . .?
d a v i d y u r k o v i c h