Obituary: Steve Ditko

Enigmatic artist whose drawings of Spider-Man spun new webs of intrigue for fans of superheroes

COMIC BOOK GREAT: Steve Ditko, the reclusive artist who brought Spider-Man and Doctor Strange to life
COMIC BOOK GREAT: Steve Ditko, the reclusive artist who brought Spider-Man and Doctor Strange to life

Steve Ditko, who has died aged 90, was the publicity-shy co-creator of Spider-Man; he was also involved in the creation of a range of other fictional cartoon superheroes, including Captain Atom and Doctor Strange.

Spider-Man, known as Spidey, is, in fact, Peter Parker, a teenager with an inferiority complex whose parents have died in a plane crash. He was bitten by a radioactive spider that left him with spider-like abilities, including the ability to cling to surfaces and shoot spider-webs from his wrists.

From the outset Parker/Spider-Man learnt that “with great power there must also come great responsibility”.

It was Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ editor and head writer, who came up with the idea of Spider-Man. Rejecting an artwork suggestion by Jack Kirby, Marvel’s chief artist, Lee turned instead to Ditko, who created Spider-Man’s distinctive red-and-blue outfit.

Spider-Man, an amalgam of pop culture and philosophical musings, first appeared in issue No.15 of Amazing Fantasy in August 1962 and then in his own magazine, Amazing Spider-Man. He has since been seen in television shows, Hollywood films, video games and even an ill-fated Broadway musical.

Yet just as the character was about to hit the big time, Ditko and Lee stopped talking.

Ditko, who had gradually been introducing right-wing political views into the strips, walked out in 1966 and thereafter became something of a recluse. “I know why I left Marvel but no one else in this universe knew or knows why,” he wrote in 2001.

Stephen John Ditko was born at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on November 2, 1927, the second of four children of Stephen, a master carpenter at a steel mill, and his wife Anna, who were Eastern European immigrants. The siblings would collect Sunday newspaper strips of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant so that Anna could bind them with a cloth cover as a Christmas gift for their father.

Stephen studied at Johnstown High School, spending the war years carving wooden model planes that were used for training aeroplane spotters to identify enemy aircraft. He enlisted in the US Army in October 1945, serving in post-war Germany and drawing cartoons for a military magazine.

Demobilised, he studied with Jerry Robinson, of Batman fame, at the Cartoonist and Illustrators’ School in New York City, funded by the GI Bill. For a time he shared a studio with Eric Stanton, the fetish comic artist whose wildly subversive creations included Blunder Broad and Lady Princker.

By 1953 Ditko was producing his own dramatic work, chiefly for horror titles. His first significant piece was Stretching Things about Lawrence Dawson, a man with brittle bones who takes an experimental medicine called Muiclac (calcium, spelt backwards) and is not only cured but eventually becomes a killer.

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The following year Ditko became ill with tuberculosis and returned to his parents’ home. Back in New York at the end of 1955, he joined Atlas Comics, a predecessor of Marvel Comics.

Ditko’s next major character, Captain Atom, dressed in a red-and-yellow costume, first appeared in the comic book series Space Adventure in March 1960. Two years later, Spider-Man spun his first web and in 1964 Ditko created Doctor Strange, a surgeon whose hands were ruined in a car accident and who develops mystical powers while seeking a cure.

After leaving Marvel in 1966, Ditko shuttled between publishers and superheroes with monotonous regularity. By the early 1990s, he was back at Marvel drawing the female superhero Squirrel Girl while also doing low-paying gigs for Big Boy restaurants’ giveaway comics.

Ditko never gave another interview after 1968. Even in 2002, when Spider-Man made his big-screen debut and the Marvel frontman Lee was enjoying the limelight, Ditko was nowhere to be seen.

In 2007 Jonathan Ross tracked him down for a BBC Four documentary. The enigmatic artist declined to co-operate, saying that he preferred to let his work speak for itself, although Ross later revealed that they had spoken by phone.

Ditko, who was unmarried, was a devotee of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of hyper-capitalism and self-interest. He was found dead on June 29.

© Telegraph

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