Steve Ditko was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on November 2, 1927. That same year, the famous Babe Ruth-inspired New York Yankees ruled the world of baseball.
Ironically, during the Marvel comics explosion in New York during the early '60s, their staff was compared to that very team - with editor Stan Lee as manager Miller Huggins, to Jack Kirby's Babe Ruth and Steve Ditko's Lou Gehrig.
Ditko studied art in New York under instructor Jerry Robinson (the second artist to draw Batman, right after creator Bob Kane) at the Cartoonists And Illustrators School. His first published comic book work was for DC in Fantastic Fears 5, followed soon by Black Magic 27, both drawn in 1953.
In 1954 Ditko also labored for Charlton comics, whose product was published in a low budget printing shop that had been converted from a cereal box factory. The paper stock and inking dies were also low grade, and there were never any plans followed for any improvement in those areas. But between such small production costs and adequate sales, the company somehow survived for many decades.
At Charlton, Ditko was at least left alone to exercise full control over his creations, which meant much more to him than getting a slight raise in salary from heavy-handed art directors.
In 1955 Ditko met Stan Lee, a young editor at the Atlas comic company, run by Martin Goodman. Working in the office over the years since WWII, Lee had proven himself to be a good writer (if a bit too far on the soap opera side), overcoming claims of favoritism due to his also being Goodman's nephew.
Atlas comics, after a brief change to Timely, would soon be Marvel comics. Ditko's debut for Lee was in Journey Into Mystery 33. It is well received, but the company does not yet have all three key "mighty Marvel" team members in place, and suffered through some financial belt-tightening as it struggled to put out a quality product.
Meanwhile at Charlton, there was always plenty of other work in between better gigs, since quality was never Charlton's prime concern. In 1958, Jack Kirby starts working for Lee, with Strange Worlds 1. No record is shown of Kirby also working at Charlton with Ditko, however.
For the next couple of decades, Ditko worked at both Charlton and the Goodman-Lee company (Atlas/Timely/Marvel). For the Goodman company, he usually did creepy five-pagers, which were inserted after the requisite "monster of the month" by Kirby.
Boiled down to '60s TV terms, Kirby's contributions were more Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, while Ditko's were more Twilight Zone. Ditko tingled your spine, while Kirby snapped it like a twig.
In 1960 at Charlton, Ditko introduced Captain Atom in Space Adventures 33. In 1962 at Marvel he also enjoyed a brief run on Amazing Adult Fantasy 7-14. Then in issue 15, retitled to Amazing Fantasy, the character of Spider-man was first published. The popularity of Spidey came hot on the heels of Kirby's recent hit, the Fantastic Four. Other mutant (and non-mutant) super-heroes would soon join the mix, including Kirby's Hulk, X-men, Thor, and Ditko's Dr. Strange.
And most of those character concepts and scripts were written and edited by Lee himself. Even a recasting of Golden Age characters like the Sub-Mariner and Captain America was put into effect. This caused the explosion known as the Marvel universe. Finally, after a quarter century of reigning supreme in the comics kingdom, DC comics had some real competition to watch out for.
There was another '60s analogy regarding Marvel, this time one involving the Beatles. Lee was often compared to being Paul McCartney to Kirby's John Lennon and Ditko's George Harrison (Don Heck must have represented Ringo). Each artist would have been fine on his own, but a bit too caustic.
The addition of Lee's soap opera sweetness and romance helped many a head-banging hitfest find it's way out of the literary dumpster of predictability throughout the '60s, '70s and early '80s - after-which Lee left the hands-on arena and became much more of a corporate animal. (In the late '90s he regretted having made that move, despite the increased money.) But what an incredible 25 year editorial run he had!
Ditko, dubbed "Sturdy Steve" by Lee during the '60s "Marvel Age of Comics," mainly worked on Amazing Spider-Man, Dr. Strange (within Strange Tales) and other less regular Marvel book projects (off and on between his Charlton duties), while Kirby worked on his six main Marvel books. Didn't these guys get any sleep?
The acrobatic cover for Spidey 23.
(Click pic to enlarge.)
Copyright © 1965 Marvel Comics Group
In his personal life, while many others during the '60s chose meditation, yoga or free pot and sex to search for self-liberation, Ditko adopted the philosophies of Ayn Rand, the objectivist writer that underground cartoonist Robert Crumb has parodied in his comics.
The Rand school of thought is a very conservative and restrictive one, to be sure: concerning itself with things including good and evil being like black and white, with little or no gray areas between.
A falling out reportedly took place between Ditko and Lee, which according to most industry office lore has it that Lee wanted the Green Goblin to be Harry Osborne, while Ditko felt that it should not be so obvious and contrived as that, preferring that the master criminal be a complete stranger instead.
But for whatever ultimate reason (or combination of reasons), Ditko felt that leaving the full-time grind at Marvel in 1966 was the best way he could relieve some of the deadline and other pressures he'd been building up over the years. He continued with Charlton, where he could work more loosely, producing some fine work with the Blue Beetle and The Question, and also did some good DC work in 1968 with The Creeper and The Hawk and the Dove.
Ironically, the very next year after Ditko left Marvel, the character of Spider-Man was made into a hit animated TV series, running from September 9, 1967 to June 14, 1970. The catchy title tune was written by Bob Harris, with equally catchy lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.
Other than some brief work - a cover (Hulk 235), an annual (Micronauts) and three guest issues (Machine Man) in 1979, Ditko basically made no regular appearances on any Marvel titles until the early '80s.
These included (aside from the usual spate of reprints and a few covers) Marvel Spotlight, Indiana Jones, Rom, Speedball, and more work on Machine Man.
But today's collectors of Ditko art rarely quibble over why he made one particular appearance or for which company it was. All they care about is the abundance of fine work, and rightly so. That's just the way Ditko always wanted it to be, anyway, often saying only that "the work speaks for me."
And indeed it always will!
Self-portrait of the artist taking a quick nap.