Steve Ditko, RIP

The Objectivist comic book artist, co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, left an indelibly brilliant mark on popular culture.


Steve Ditko, the comic book artist who is also the most influential popular artist specifically and deeply influenced by Ayn Rand's Objectivism, was found dead in his New York apartment late last month at age 90.

Steve Ditko

His greatest claim to fame was his co-creation in the early 1960s of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange with writer Stan Lee at Marvel Comics. Ditko's fertile imagination is to this day keeping thousands of people employed and multi-millions of dollars flowing through the Marvel cinematic universe's reliance on his concepts.

Not that Ditko worried about that sort of thing; he had done the work he had done, for hire, and had let go any public sense of being owed anything for it. He did want it on the record that he had co-created those characters when he saw Lee seeming to imply otherwise, but never publicly fought for any monetary recompense for it. But he deserved, and to a large degree got, the adoration of generations of comics fans, who he avoided, almost never appearing in public or allowing himself to be interviewed.

Ditko was also, once upon a time, a Reason contributor, in our early days. Our September 1969 issue (page 6) featured his energetically Randian 10-page story "The Avenging World," blaming the world's evils on equivocating "neutralist" compromisers who refuse to take firm and decisive sides between right and wrong.

The Watchmen protagonist Rorschach was Alan Moore's take on Ditko's DC Comics character The Question and, as I argued at Reason, Moore's attempt to present what a thoroughgoing Objectivist hero would be like in real life. (Rorschach also drew on Ditko's self-owned Objectivist hero Mr. A.)

Steve Ditko

When Reason contributing editor Peter Bagge wrote and drew a Spider-Man comic book for Marvel, he re-imagined Peter Parker as Bagge's own version of a character consumed, as Ditko was, by Objectivism.

Ditko was one of the very few sui generis cartoonists. While Jeet Heer in a thoughtful summation of his career and influence at New Republic notes Ditko being inspired by Jerry Robinson, Will Eisner, and Joe Kubert, to my eyes by the late 1950s, in his science fiction and weird mystery work for Charlton and Marvel Comics, Ditko was drawing in as explosively unprecedented a manner as anyone in comics history, with an endlessly rich and startlingly fresh way of representing the human imagination, quirky and eldritch, groundedly appealing but profoundly unsettling, distinct and in every detail exhibiting a mind that was just not like everyone else's.

No one in the superhero field even tries to get close to Ditko's style anymore, though as Heer also notes Ditko's draftsmanship and character design sense can be detected in some "alternative" cartoonists as Dan Clowes, Ben Katchor, and Gilbert Hernandez.

He walked away from his big Marvel creations in 1966 and while he continued to work for many other publishers, including Marvel again in the 1970s and '80s, Ditko abandoned the commercial comic industry by the end of the 1990s. Even in the late 20th century he mostly indulged in his own curious near-outsider-art presentations of his philosophy and thoughts. As comics critic and historian Douglas Wolk put it in his book Reading Comics, Ditko in his later years reduced (or possibly refined) his work to "pure nerve-wracking style: arguing faces, abstract doodles, hectoring moralism."

I noted at Reason his 85th birthday with many links of Objectivist interest. The nature of his post-Marvel career has been likened by some to Rand's Fountainhead hero Howard Roark working in the quarry, or Atlas Shrugged's John Galt taking his genius from the masses, doing whatever honest work he could even if not able to work to the height of his abilities and powers as a creator for the general public. He was willing to not be recognized by the world as long as it meant keeping his creative integrity intact. For reasons of personal integrity known only to him, he refused to sell any of his own original art pages, which could have made him a rich man.

The book Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics) details how Ditko in superhero comics such as Blue Beetle and Hawk and Dove worked Objectivist themes of the corruption of modern art, the necessity for rigorous rationality, and how evil works often through the "sanction of the victim" who refuses to recognize, name, and stand up for what's right.

Ditko's most Randian characteristic, though, is that he worked to the best of his unique individualistic creative powers, and in doing so shook up the world, making himself, if not the, at least a sustaining fountainhead of modern comics art.

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    1. It makes me wonder how long Stan ale is for this world. Amd a world without Stan Lee scarcely bears thinking.

      1. ‘Stan Lee’

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  1. Steve Ditko was a legend.

  2. Doctor Strange was my favorite as a kid. “By the Hoary Host of Hoggath”

    1. Likewise.
      But how very odd that an Objectivist would create a hero who was Master of the Mystic Arts.
      Delightful, but odd.

      1. It was voluntary, selfish mysticism.

  3. He was sui generis, a nonsuch. His Dr. Strange run took place in a universe like nowhere else. And his art in Spiderman was fantastic (despite every single secondary character dressing like a 40s racetrack tout). I remember showing my Dad how you could follow the action from panel to panel in the fights, which was, and remains, almost unique. Cinematic before his time, although, now I think about it, most movie fights now do NOT present the action in such a logically sequential way, preferring shakeycam closeups, superfast cuts and blows landed or blocked.

    Even more remarkable was his insistence on living according to his own principles, even at considerable economic cost to himself. What the hell is up with that>?

  4. If you had asked Ditko if he would “rest in peace” after death, he would have undoubtedly noted that there’d be no “Steve” to do any resting. I once commented on USENET that: For example, I’ve been a huge Ditko fan since my teens, but when I was in first or second grade I didn’t “get” his graphic shorthand, especially the bit where half of Peter Parker’s head would turn into a Spider-Man mask when he was standing in front of folks who didn’t know his secret ID. How could they not!? It was right there, plain as the webs on half his face!! Later on I figured out that this was meant to symbolize Pete’s internal quandries, akin to a thought balloon, but I just wasn’t “Ditko-literate” at six years old. [Compares to not being familiar with manga graphic conventions, I’d warrant.]

    Ditko-action was distinct from Kirby’s version, but just as effective on characters such as Spider-Man. Ditko apprenticed under Jerry Robinson, Bob Kane’s first /g/h/o/s/t/ assistant, and under the great Mort (Johnny Quick) Meskin. I think that had much to do with the fluidity and naturalism of his work, where one might expect a Randian to strive for a Promethean idealism.

  5. …blaming the world’s evils on equivocating “neutralist” compromisers who refuse to take firm and decisive sides between right and wrong.

    What would he say about How Reason Became a ‘Mainstream Intellectual Magazine with an Unusual Point of View’?

  6. Around second or third grade, my brother bought a comic book of monster stories. I believe it was all reprints from the early ’60s or so, although I didn’t realise that at the time. The panel shown here is from one of the stories. This is the first time I’ve seen it since the mid-’70s, but I still remember it clearly. The protagonist Horace plays cruel practical jokes on all his friends, so they decide to get revenge by convincing him he’s being kidnapped by Martians. But Horace overhears the plans and decides to play along. And then the real Martians show up to abduct him.

    This panel appears exactly as I remembered it. I even remembered Horace’s dialogue ‘Oh, happy day!’

  7. Aw man. RIP.

  8. Steve Ditko was by all accounts a fantastic person, and a model Objectivist.

    A tragic loss for the rest of us; one that will surely be forgotten by most before the next Marvel movie premieres.

    1. Mr. Ditko seems to have been an awkward, lonely, disaffected man.

      1. Objectivists as a class of people are often misrepresented or ignored, and Objectivism is widely mocked, made fun of, or casually disregarded as a fringe ideology for loonies. It’s no surprise he would seem lonely or disaffected. He probably WAS lonely, and was obviously disaffected. Perhaps he chose to withdraw from a world that did not share his values.

        1. I’m not a “student of objectivism,” but I read just about everything Rand had put between covers in my early 20s, and eagerly snapped up Mr A, Avenging World and any other Ditko products as they came out. Even after SD’s comics style was surpassed commercially by the Liefelds of the world, Steve could have been lionized, year-round, at comics conventions all over the world. But, as Brian noted, he didn’t care for that kind of adulation. I know a few cartoonists who went pro with Marvel and DC in the late 70s/early 80s and they all admired Ditko, and would have loved to schmooze with him in Artist’s Alley, or take him to dinner and talk shop, or attend a “chalk talk” if he held one. They’d have considered it “sitting at the feet of a master.” I’ve seen some Very Big Names in that small world revert to pimply fanboys in the presence of star artists on the level of Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Carl Barks, etc. Any aloneness Ditko experienced was undoubtedly by his own choice. Who knows what non-comics social life he had, anyway? Better one good friend than the cheers of millions, anyway.

      2. Ah, but he was true to himself.

        1. How do we know he was true to himself?

          He appears to have never developed a family. His co-workers tended to describe him as strange and a loner, perhaps anti-social.

    2. “”a fantastic person, and a model Objectivist.””

      What a wonderful oxymoron!

  9. What a loss to the comics world. I’d always loved Ditko’s more cartoony style when I first got into comics, and as I got older, I came to better understand his mastery of storytelling, plotting, and the wild inventiveness of his characters. He didn’t create a *lot* of heroes, but each hero faced off against several villains, and his villains were as wild, sometimes moreso, than his heroes. Marvel, DC, and even Charlton all benefitted from his work, and I suspect that as time passes, his work and his creations will be mined even more as springboards for new work.

  10. My favorite Ditko hero was probably Paladin. Sometimes portrayed by other writers as a marginal villain, but he wasn’t. He was just for hire. And Heaven help you if you tricked him into taking a contract to do what he thought was evil.

    1. Paladin came from the pencil of Carmine Infantino, in Marvel’s Daredevil #150. (This DD is not to be confused with the hero cooked up by Jack Binder and developed by Charles Biro in the 1940s for Lev Gleason, and the bounty hunter not to be confused with the character on Have Gun, Will Travel, nor with the real life Victor De Costa!) Jim Shooter wrote the words, and the cover was by Gil Kane.

      1. I stand corrected.

        1. Rick Barton once nominated me for “H&R cultural historian” on the strength of my comic book geek cred. Can’t let the side down!

  11. Thanks for the Steve Ditko flashback. Ditko’s cartooning was way better than his spelling, possibly a side effect of a phonics fad. The captioning in this tirade was way better than in the Mr A comics, thanks maybe to Poole’s editing? He will be sorely missed.

  12. He was raised in Johnstown (Cambria County), joined the military instead of attending college. It could have been very tough to get a sound education in that part of Pennsylvania in those days, but that does not explain his failure to engage a solid editor. Perhaps he was headstrong enough to prefer being overtly subliterate to being helped or corrected?

  13. How did the Martian fit through the doorway?

  14. I once had a copy of Mr. A. No where to be found now. Sigh.

  15. I’m 59, to date myself, and growing up I truly loved reading Marvel comics. (I loved reading period). I’m immensely grateful to Steve Ditko and his contemporaries for the thousands of hours I spent in the wonderful worlds they created. I hope that Steve Ditko and Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Joe Schuster, Jerry Siegel, et al, are resting in peace. (When Stan “The Man” Lee passes away it will truly be the end of an era).

    1. Joe Shuster, please.

      Ditko was an atheist. He wouldn’t expect to be after death, resting, peacefully or not.

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