RIP Steve Ditko: You, Jack Kirby and Wally Wood Opened My Eyes to a World of Heroic Fantasy

8.7.18

Steve Ditko's cover for Amazing Spider-Man No. 4, possibly the first super-hero comic I read, as a nine-year old in 1972.Today I’m remembering the US comic artist Steve Ditko, who has died at the age of 90, and was one of three comic artists who opened my eyes to the world of super-heroes — Marvel super-heroes — on a summer holiday in Devon in 1972, when I was nine years old.

On a wardrobe in a B&B where we were staying were pages from a couple of comics, Smash! and Pow!, which were published in the late 60s by Odhams Press, a subsidiary of IPC, featuring reprints of Marvel comics from the 1960s — especially, I remember, Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man, Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, and Wally Wood’s Daredevil. 

All three titles were written by Stan Lee, whose abilities with characterisation and breezy dialogue helped to ensure that Marvel made super-hero comics cool in the 1960s, and made their main rivals DC, the home of Superman and Batman, look increasingly irrelevant.

However. while Stan may have had the patter, the vision came from the artists. Jack Kirby’s heroic, electric style epitomised the new face of super-heroes, creating a template that continues to fundamentally define the medium. The Fantastic Four started Marvel’s’ super-hero era in November 1961, and in the extraordinarily fertile few years that followed, Kirby, with Lee, also brought forth almost the entire basis of the Marvel Universe — Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Avengers, featuring the revival of Captain America, which Kirby had created with Joe Simon back in the 1940s, and the original X-Men, as well the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, and a host of memorable villains from the galactic greed of Galactus to the deadly deviousness of Doctor Doom.

In those few corners of this nascent heroic universe left untouched by Kirby, other artists also left an indelible mark, and none more so than Steve Ditko, who, with Lee, created Spider-Man, still Marvel’s most popular character, and a hero whose costume is so definitive that it has barely changed in the 45 years since he first leapt out of the pages of Amazing Fantasy 15 (August 1962) to instant acclaim.

Ditko’s sinuous story-telling graced the first 38 issues of the Amazing Spider-Man, but as I also discovered after Marvel began producing their own weekly black and white British reprints in September 1972, just after my holiday, Ditko was also the creator of Dr. Strange, whose fantastical magical escapades involved surreal landscapes never seen in comics before — or since, to be honest.

A panel from one of Steve Ditko's Dr. Strange comics from the 1960s.The graphic flights of fantasy that emerged from the fertile imagination of Steve Ditko appealed to the nascent 60s counter-culture, even though Ditko himself almost certainly never took any psychedelic drugs at all. As Roy Thomas, the chief writer in the new wave of writers to succeed Stan Lee in the late 60s and into the 70s explained in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971, ”People who read ‘Doctor Strange’ thought people at Marvel must be heads, because they had had similar experiences high on mushrooms. But … I don’t use hallucinogens, nor do I think any [comic] artists do.”

The third artist I mentioned above, Wally Wood, brought a kind of voluptuousness, and an extraordinary sense of light, to another great creation of the early 60s, Daredevil, created by Lee and veteran artist Bill Everett, who had created Namor, the Sub-Mariner, back in 1939, for the first comic by Marvel’s predecessor, Timely Comics.

Daredevil subsequently became one of my favourite comics — and the only Silver Age title I once owned an entire run of, before reluctantly selling it in the late 80s, but that’s perhaps a story for another time. Now that I’m hitting my stride with this, it might be fun to trace in more detail my journey from that wardrobe in Devon through Marvel UK’s reprints to my emergence, aged 11, as a full-on US Marvel Comics reader, enthralled by the freedom of Marvel’s world in the mid-70s — with Len Wein and Dave Cockrum reviving the X-Men in 1975 (and soon handing it over to Chris Claremont and John Byrne), with the wild Steve Gerber helming several assaults on the dominant US culture, via, for example, Howard the Duck, with Steve Rogers becoming so disillusioned with the US that he briefly gave up his Captain America identity and became Nomad instead, and with other wonderful experiments and new trajectories — the short-lived Killraven series, for example, inspired by War on the Worlds, and the masterly Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu.

My way into this wonderful — and at the time, often quite anarchic — world was primarily via the great little shop Bogus, on Princes Avenue in Hull (in whose environs I grew up from 1966 to 1982), but also through visits to London to the shop with the best name ever, at the time located in St. Anne’s Court in Soho — Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed, the precursor to Forbidden Planet, where I ended up working for a while in the late 80s.

By that time, I had largely grown out of the super-hero world, as it shattered beneath the onslaught of the visionary writer Alan Moore, and the graphic innovations of Frank Miller, moving instead into the world of graphic novels, and independent creators like the Hernandez brothers, the creators of Love and Rockets, only eventually returning to the super-hero world in 2012, when my son was 13, and enthralled by Marvel Studios’ first Avengers film, the wheel turning full circle, and Marvel, though now a corporate giant with a studio owned by Disney, still managing at times to excite and entertain and even, occasionally, to challenge assumptions.

As I say, however, perhaps these are stories better saved to be discussed in greater detail some other time. Back in June 1972, it was Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man, Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Wally Wood’s Daredevil that opened an eight-year old’s eyes to a world of heroic fantasy that was to have a genuinely lasting impression — currently, I realise to my muted horror, 46 years and counting!

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    So here’s something of a departure for me – an article in which I remember Steve Ditko, the comic artist who created Spider-Man’s look, and who also invented Dr. Strange, who has died at the age of 90. As I recount here, it was Ditko’s Spider-Man, Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Wally Wood’s Daredevil – all scripted by Stan Lee – that first captivated me as a nine-year old, when I found some black and white British reprints on a wardrobe in a B&B my family were staying at in Devon. It was the start of a love affair with the super-hero genre, and comics in general, that lasted for around 20 years, and which, after a more or less 20-year hiatus, I took up again in 2012, when my son also discovered super-heroes via the Marvel Studios movies, and more British reprints – this time in full colour!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s an interesting article about Ditko, who, notoriously, was a follower of the chillingly selfish philosophy of Ayn Rand – ‘The Creator of Doctor Strange Will Not See You Now’ by Abraham Riesman: http://www.vulture.com/2016/11/steve-ditko-doctor-strange-c-v-r.html

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert Rouse wrote:

    To me it’s about the art, not their political leanings. I still find Jon Voight’s performance in Midnight Cowboy enthralling, even though he’s a Right wing douche. And Ditko brought Spider-Man to life. F*ck Ayn Rand.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, Robert. Ditko’s art, his storytelling, his visual language were extraordinary, and I had no reason whatsoever to think of his politics while reading Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. I just threw that link in there as an extra.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    From ‘How the Cold War saved Marvel and birthed a generation of superheroes’:

    The reason why they were flying a dangerous experimental rocket into space in the first place was because they had to beat the Soviet Union—as the normally level-headed Sue Storm says to Ben Grimm after he expresses his unwillingness to risk the launch, “We’ve got to take that chance… unless we want the commies to beat us!”

    See: https://www.avclub.com/how-the-cold-war-saved-marvel-and-birthed-a-generation-1798246215

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert Rouse wrote:

    That was Stan Lee’s writing. Originally, they were going to try to beat the Russians to Mars, but at the time, the Soviets were way ahead of us and Lee thought they might get to Mars first, so he changed the story “To the stars”.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I never liked the “red menace” stuff even as a kid, Tashi and Robert, and was obviously glad when Marvel moved on. Iron Man, in particular, was plagued by it in the early days. As I mention in my article, I loved how open Marvel’s editorial policy was in the mid-70s, and how often there was criticism of the prevailing culture.
    Since I started reading Marvel comics again over the last six years, the most troubling contemporary angle has been how the “war on terror” is presented, and, occasionally, how Guantanamo surfaces dubiously in the comics. It’s probably something I should look at more closely – especially as Hollywood studios have so often been so enthusiastic about being propagandists for the CIA, as with the wretched Zero Dark Thirty established so clearly: https://www.salon.com/2015/09/11/the_cias_insidious_hollywood_propaganda_new_report_highlights_alarming_details_about_zero_dark_thirty/

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    I loved superheroes too as a kid, I still remember the Wonder Woman tank top and underwear set that I used to battle bad guys in. 😁
    I have a totally different perspective nowadays, I saw the Wonder Woman film and thought, Propaganda!
    I loved the the Black Panther, only because we need more superheroes that fit reality. I’m also looking forward to the Plus Size hero — cant wait to see her kick ass!
    I just wish these heroes didn’t have to brainwash us, which many do without us noticing.
    Anyhow, life is filled with wonderful examples of real life heroes and you are one of mine.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tashi! 😉 I started watching Wonder Woman on my flight to or from the US in January (I can’t remember which), but I gave up on it almost immediately. The violence was just horrible.
    I agree about being stealthily brainwashed, and it concerns me. Even with Black Panther, for example, which provided very positive black heroic models (especially, I think, in its women characters), it felt as though Killmonger’s personal problems were deliberately being equated with his revolutionary aims, with both ending up discredited, when in the real world there is no Wakanda to ride to the rescue, and resistance is valid.

  10. Tom says...

    I know it’s show business. I’m all for artists being able to work. But that being said, sometimes I just wanna say enough already. Just how many Iron Man movies do we need anyway?

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha! Good point, Tom. Three is the answer to that particular rhetorical question, but overall, of course, the movies have become a ridiculous cash cow, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, and leading to actors being paid absolutely extraordinary amounts of money. The comparison with the 60s and 70s is interesting, as hardly anyone was making such eye-wateringly huge amounts of money out of their creative endeavors back then. I sometimes feel that we are back in the middle ages, with our kings now apparently film stars and pop stars and sports stars – although behind them, of course, tend to be the faceless execs and investors who are making even more money.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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