OPINIONS 101: Steve Ditko...What if?
March 5, 2006
My pal Alex Ness at POP THOUGHT was recently soliciting opinons about the work of artist Steve Ditko and asked me for 300 words. I sent him 300 words but then realized I had a bit more to say on the matter...
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 local library had a copy of it and I used to check it out every few weeks or so. It was within those pages that I was introduced to Steve’s stellar work on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and DR. STRANGE.
Even in my youth 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 traditional jazz. His figures flowed gracefully across each panel and each face he etched was laden with touches that made them instantly recognizable to the reader. Ditko’s renditions of the astral planes through which Dr. Strange traversed set the standard for out-of-body visuals much as Kirby’s “crackle” effect defined how cartoonists rendered electricity and magnetic currents. It is unfortunate that, due to creative differences between him and writer Stan Lee, Ditko’s tenure at Marvel during the Silver-age was cut short.
At times I like to envision an alternate universe, 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, and the Hulk. I’d like to think that he and Lee 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 look that artist John Romita brought to 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 own invention.
Ditko did, of course, return to Marvel in the ‘80s. However, his work was largely limited to second-tier titles like MACHINE MAN, MARVEL SPOTLIGHT, and SPEEDBALL. Steve’s work on MARVEL SPOTLIGHT included a terrific run of Captain Universe stories written by Bill Mantlo. Captain Universe was first introduced in issue 8 of Marvel’s THE MICRONAUTS by Bill and artist Michael Golden. The Captain’s shtick was that he could be anyone at any time if the situation warranted it. Thus, each issue technically featured a different hero insofar as a different person donned the Captain Universe powers month to month.
Unfortunately, the series didn’t find the audience it deserved. Likewise, Steve’s work on MACHINE MAN (he picked up the series with issue 10 with scripter Tom DeFalco after Kirby’s departure from the series) was short lived, as this series also slipped between the cracks of fandom and was soon forgotten.
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 following a lengthy tenure as artist, 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 Dr. Strange.
Before anyone writes to accuse me of blasphemy for having suggested that the first 100 issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN might have been better had they been produced under the creative umbrella of Lee/Ditko as opposed to Lee/Romita, let me make one thing perfectly clear:
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 throughout the 1970s. Likewise, I’m not seeking to ignore or belittle Ditko’s many projects produced outside of Marvel. I’m only stating that, to me at least, Ditko (like Kirby) is as much a part of the Marvel Comics Group iconography as Stan Lee. Ditko’s work on SPIDER-MAN, HULK, etc., has, deservedly so, ensured him a place in our industry’s history.
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