Steve Ditko: Neat Drawings, Much Thinking

by John Holbo on July 9, 2018

A couple of weeks ago (June 23) I made the following post on Facebook: “Huh. Steve Ditko is still alive? Just not giving interviews the last half-century?”

And, of course, he died a week later. (This is why people believe in jinxes.) So I feel a bit bad about that one.

Kirby and Lee … and Ditko. That’s where it all started at Marvel. I was always a Kirby guy. But I would say Ditko’s best feature was keeping it simple and clean in terms of the outlines of his figures, especially the ones wearing tights. Whenever you see Spider-Man swinging through your friendly neighborhood, that’s Ditko. Even when he’s drawing Kirby monsters, Ditko manages to make it look simple and clean in a nice, palette-cleansing way.

A lot of artists have subsequently melded Kirby-ish exuberance with a Ditko-esque neatness, to good effect. Ditko, at his best, is very tidy in his compositions.

Who are some especially Ditko-esque descendents? Gilbert Hernandez, I would say. Also, Mike Allred’s Madman. Now there’s a lonely, bright light in the generally dark 90’s! It’s like he had a sphere of Ditko-ness keeping all that Liefeldian scruff and gloom at bay. Allred – along with other artists and writers – has written a brief, memorial appreciation.

So odd, and curious, how he chose to remove himself from the mainstream, shunning photographs and embracing a weird anonymity. Our industry’s J.D.Salinger. He certainly seemed to live his life exactly the way he wanted to.

But all that aside, a major architect of the comic-book industry who has personally been a gigantic influence on my art.

I go back to his work again and again for a source of energy, enthusiasm, entertainment and inspiration.

That’s just was I was thinking the week before he died!

Last night I was browsing Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko [amazon]. The author, Blake Bell, writes about how Alan Moore admired Ditko for the fact that he was so political, and insisted on injecting that into his comics – even though Moore thought his extreme Randian objectivism was nuts. Rorschach, from Watchmen, is a Ditkoesque figure. Anyway, Bell writes:

Alan Moore spend much of the 1980’s writing about heroes questioning (and failing under pressure from) the very morality of what defined them as heroes. His landmark mid-1980’s graphic novel with Dave Gibbons, Watchmen, borrowed and dramatically reshaped Ditko’s three Charlton Action Hero characters with results that would have repulsed their creator’s straightforward notion of a true hero’s unwavering moral constitution. (112)

How weird that he has to write about Ditko’s A = A objectivism in the subjunctive! Ditko was, to put it mildly, still alive in 1986. Still producing. It would be interesting to hear what Ditko thought of Watchmen. Would have been interesting.

[UPDATE: Josh, in comments, provides. It’s an interview with Alan Moore in which he relates how someone asked Ditko about Rorschach and he drew a blank – Watchmen? – then he rememebered. Oh, the one that’s like Mr. A. Only he’s insane!)

(Come to think of it, Allred’s Madman is like a gentler parody than Rorschach to the effect that Ditko’s protagonists see things so simply that it’s nuts.)

It can’t be denied that, from quite early on, Ditko’s attempts to pack in philosophy produced some … over-simplified thinking. But that’s appealing, too. In a crazy way.


UPDATE: Alan White got things going poetically in comments to my Headlopper post, but I didn’t get around to writing this post before comments there closed!

“I’m 65 and just retired after a really wonderful career as a philosophy professor, and yet, reflecting on Ditko’s death, I can still see how reading those comics molded my sense of what’s honorable, what’s just, what hope is. …”

2ND UPDATE: Come to think of it, Jaime Hernandez is at least as Ditkoesque. (What do I have against Jaime? I actually prefer his art to his brothers’.) And I really should have mentioned Daniel Clowes as well.



NickS 07.09.18 at 5:44 pm

Andrew Rilstone has recently been writing about the classic Ditko/Lee Spiderman, which I’ve enjoyed and is the best sort of obsessive fannish commentary. Most recently, these are his posts on the “Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy”

[prologue] I’m For No More Love analysis of what the letters page shows about the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko split.

[introduction] The Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy

[Part I] If This Be My Destiny….!

[Part II] Man on a Rampage!

[Part III] The Love You Take . . .

Sample of his writing (from “Man on a Rampage”)

The more one scratches the surface, the more compelling becomes the idea that Ditko is book-ending his graphic novel, gathering themes together, saying goodbye. In Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker had no friends and whinged about it; in Amazing Spider-Man #32 he actively drives his friends away and couldn’t give a damn. In the first story, Uncle Ben gave Peter a microscope; in this final one, he pawns a microscope to save Aunt May’s life. In Amazing Spider-Man #1 it was Aunt May pawning her jewelry for Pete’s sake. But overall, overwhelmingly, the whole energy of the trilogy comes from a single fact. When he first became Spider-Man, Peter Parker failed to act, and as a result, Uncle Ben died. In this final story he acts obsessively, fanatically, almost insanely in order to keep Aunt May alive. “It can’t happen again! It mustn’t! It mustn’t! There must be some way to save her! There must be!”

The last time Aunt May was ill, Peter Parker quit being Spider-Man to care for her. Last issue, before he realized how poorly she was, he moaned that “with all my power, with all my spider-strength, there is nothing that I can do for her.” With great power there sometimes comes great helplessness. But from the moment he hears the terminal diagnosis, the energy, the violence of Spider-Man takes over the comic. He is going to do stuff. He is going to break things until Aunt May gets better.


Jesse Abelman 07.09.18 at 7:04 pm

“Rorschach, from Watchmen, is a Ditkoesque figure. ” Not just Ditkoesque, a straight Ditko pastiche, based on The Question, who Ditko created for Charlton Comics. I’d never made the political connection before, and that is neat.


Jesse Abelman 07.09.18 at 7:05 pm

And I should have kept reading before commenting, because that precise point follows.


Joseph Brenner 07.09.18 at 7:47 pm

Well… “simple and clean”? You could make the case that the key thing about Ditko was that he was *never lazy*, he didn’t shy away from drawing complex figures (consider the fact that Spider-Man has a web pattern on his face).

The kind of thing that characterizes Ditko for me is some of his more minor, obscure work, doing one-shots for horror comics. A Ditko ghost might be a classic amorphous white-sheet figure, but they billow around in strange ways, perhaps passing through a wall in two places at once, when the plot could live with just one. There’s an odd Ditko illustrated story that’s nominally about monsters from “the fifth dimension” that he took as an opportunity to draw these strange figures that look like they’ve escaped from Flatland– they’re like two dimensional cut-outs, but they always look wavey, folded and reaching through 3-D space.

Anyway, if anyone wonders why we’re talking about Ditko, just do a web image search on “Steve Ditko Doctor Strange”.

Ditko’s later attempts at doing comics after Ayn Rand (Mr. A) were pretty interesting, all right. I always wanted to photocopy them and cut them up into individual panels so I could write rebuttals to each one.


Alan White 07.09.18 at 9:50 pm

I very much appreciate this post John and the comments above, especially NickS. As for what I have had to say, I’d direct people to your earlier Head Lopper post, where I reported Ditko’s death and left my own little poetic paean:


John Holbo 07.09.18 at 10:12 pm

“Well… “simple and clean”? You could make the case that the key thing about Ditko was that he was *never lazy*, he didn’t shy away from drawing complex figures (consider the fact that Spider-Man has a web pattern on his face).”

Unfortunately, there’s some late, lazy Ditko out there. (But we won’t talk about that.) You are right that there’s a lot of very detailed Ditko, but I feel that there’s a … smallness and neatness to it. Even when Doctor Strange is venturing into some weird other-dimensional zone. Is that just me?


Alan White 07.10.18 at 12:08 am

John, between our postings I missed your update–thanks so much for that.

Kirby and Lee were certainly groundbreaking in bringing out the Fantastic Four–were they the first polyandered superheroes (speaking numerically if not otherwise given the dynamics Susan Storm provided)?–people first with complex emotions and relationships (you recall in my poem about Kirby last year dedicated to you that by issue 6 Susan had a “thing” for Prince Namor) who also could secondarily save the world with superpowers often seen as much a curse as a blessing. Even at 8-10, these characters deeply impressed me on many levels, which I can only see in retrospect.

But even then I identified more closely with Spider-Man when that character came along–from the Peter Parker side (as I’ve already said). Though Johnny Storm was a teen, he was no teen like Parker. Parker wins the superhero lottery–a smart but otherwise ordinary guy who happens to get bitten by a randomly radioactive spider (radioactive–random–haha) and is put in the place of dealing with that. Man, he didn’t even buy a ticket to blame himself for! But like many who have Powerballed themselves to elitism, a lot of bad comes with what seems at first overwhelming good. Talk about a lot of complex lessons to fire at a 10-year-old mind!

I’ll prattle on to no good so once again John thanks for this.


Joseph Brenner 07.10.18 at 1:35 am


> I’m For No More Loveanalysis of what the letters page shows about the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko split.

That’s an interesting theory… I’d always had the impression that Stan Lee was the inventor of the super-soap sub-genre– he always seemed very proud of his work on “Millie the Model”… but then Lee was the kind of boss who liked to take credit for everything. I also have the sense that Stan Lee was the kind of guy who liked to jump around the room (stand on the desk, etc) when doing the fight scene dialog, so I could believe it either way. Penetrating the fog of “The Marvel Method” has never been easy.

I remember as a kid I was scandalized by over-hearing some even younger kid opining that he didn’t like the early Spider-Man’s because Spider-Man was “too skinny” back then– but that of course was always the joke, part of the Spider-Man idea was that it was a kind of satire of a superhero, and he was a teenage kid who *looked* like a teenage kid.

In general– a much later insight– it’s seemed to me that the fans of popular art forms often don’t *really* understand what makes it work. Some young boys in the mid-60s demanding more action and less mushy-stuff sound like they’re in a kind of denial, uncomfortable with the appeal that the stories must actually have had for them, or else they could have easily switched over to DC, which in that era had not gone the way of super-soap (though they did rely a bit much on a not-very-subtle jokey absurdity, perhaps the last holdover from Sigel and Schuster).


Josh 07.10.18 at 2:32 am

“Somebody had been interviewing Ditko, and had said, ‘Have you ever heard of this book Watchmen?’ And he said, ‘Wha, what’s that?’ And they said, well, it’s got this character in, called Rorschach. And he said, ‘Ohhh, yes. Rorschach. He’s like Mr. A. Except he’s insane.'”—Alan Moore


John Holbo 07.10.18 at 3:30 am

Thanks, Josh! That’s amazing!


Doug O'Keefe 07.10.18 at 5:29 am

Jim Starlin is another who was much influenced by Ditko.

To me Ditko himself seems most influenced by Johnny Craig

Thanks NickS for drawing attention to Andrew Rilstone–I just read the first piece you linked to and was fascinated.


John Holbo 07.10.18 at 5:39 am

Yes, I forgot to thank Nick for the good links myself. Good stuff!


Rob Barrett 07.10.18 at 2:57 pm

Awww, you closed the Head Lopper comments. Because there are some real moments of WOW in that book.


John Holbo 07.10.18 at 4:08 pm

Yeah, Lopper is great, Rob. Sadly, it didn’t exactly inspire discussion!

Comments on this entry are closed.