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

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.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

Comic Book Star: My Role in a Comic Explaining Why Guantánamo is Such a Bad Idea, and Why It Must Be Closed

A panel from the comic 'Guantanamo Bay is Still Open. Still. STILL!' by Jess Parker and Sarah Mirk, featuring Andy Worthington.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

Three weeks ago, while I was in the US on my annual tour calling for the prison at Guantánamo Bay to be closed, to coincide with the 16th anniversary of its opening, on January 11, I received some great news from a writer friend, Sarah Mirk, that a comic about Guantánamo, in which I featured, had just been published on the website of The Nib, “a daily comics publication that is part of First Look Media,” the organization set up in 2013 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, which also includes The Intercept.

A panel from the comic 'Guantanamo Bay is Still Open. Still. STILL!' by Jess Parker and Sarah Mirk, featuring Andy Worthington.The comic is entitled, Guantánamo Bay is Still Open. Still. STILL!, and Sarah had interviewed me for it in October, although I didn’t know at the time that I would actually be immortalized in comic form!

As I explained when I posted the link on Facebook, “OK, this is very, very cool. I am now a comic book star! What else is left to achieve? Sarah Mirk, who I met in 2009 when she came to the UK with former Guantánamo guard Chris Arendt for Cageprisoners’ powerful ‘Two Sides, One Story‘ tour of the UK, with Moazzam Begg and other ex-prisoners, interviewed me recently, and used that interview as the basis for a comic about Guantánamo, illustrated by the talented Australian artist Jess Parker.”

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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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