Ditko still lives

(Facebook Memories reminded me about this post from July 10, 2018. The thoughts still apply.)

So. Steve Ditko.

I am privileged to have lived in those days before it got all big and corporate, when Marvel Comics was a secret shared by a relative handful of kids who had discovered there was more to comic books than Superman’s Pal getting turned into a giant sea turtle.

And in those days, there really was only one great debate:

Kirby or Ditko?

It wasn’t a question, as it later became, of who rose to the top of a pile of 5-10-20 good artists. There were only two Giants – Jack “King” Kirby and Sturdy Steve Ditko – upon whose artistic talents the entire Marvel Universe was being built.

I was a passionate Ditko guy. Kirby was outstanding, of course, but there was something about Ditko’s quirky style that hit me in the heart in ways Kirby couldn’t reach. It turns out I was a Ditko guy before I even knew who Ditko was. Tired of the stale stories offered up by DC Comics, the ruler of the superhero business in 1960, I had sampled an off-brand little comic called Strange Tales, which was packed with five- to seven-page monsters stories, space yarns and other thrillers for the same dime I could have spent on Clark and Lois squabbling over whatever.

I remember being thrilled in 1962 with Strange Tales Annual #1, a 25-cent giant-sized comic much like the big Superman or Batman annuals but with more of those, well, strange little tales. What I didn’t know until later was that three or four of the stories in the annual were illustrated by Steve Ditko, and his were the coolest stories. So I now know I had been charmed by the master long before I found Amazing Spider-Man #4 in the Milton, Vermont, IGA where we bought almost all of our comic books once a year on summer vacation. It was that summer of 1963 that I caught a spark bright enough to seek out comic books back in New Jersey where we lived year-round, but Steve Ditko in Strange Tales (unveiled that summer as a Marvel Comic itself!) had paved the way.

And once I knew who he was, I had a name to go with the art that had enchanted me all along. I loved Ditko. I loved the way Spider-Man actually looked like a man bestowed with spidery qualities, I loved the kinetic energy in his drawings that made static pages pulse with movement. He made me believe a man could swing between buildings on a rope-like web. I believed a man could climb walls like a spider because I saw the man do it through Ditko’s pencils and inks.

When Ditko left Marvel, it was one of the first experiences with grief in my young life. In new hands Spider-Man and Doctor Strange emerged from Ditko’s shadow-filled fantasies and started looking like pale, slickly rendered imitations of themselves. Over the years I measured each new artist for those characters by how well they managed to capture the look Ditko had injected in them. Some achieved it better than others. For there was a Ditko look, often imitated but never quite caught in a bottle. Seeing his pages, you know instantly that they are Steve Ditko’s artwork. And for me, that instant has always been accompanied by a thrill of delight and discovery: Here is another story told as only Ditko can tell it.

Over the years I became intrigued by Ditko’s private life and convictions. He adamantly refused to show his “real” self to the fans, avoiding cameras, shunning the spotlight, insisting that his work speak for itself. Speak? It shouted and screams and crackled with life.

When Steve Ditko’s death was announced the other day, I flashed back to the sense of loss I felt when he left Marvel all those years ago, and I actually couldn’t put the emotion into words for several days. His death was no surprise – the man was 90, after all, and not even childhood heroes live forever – but it was an unwelcome reminder that endings happen and things change.

But once the reality had settled in, I realized Steve Ditko had done us a favor by refusing to share his personal details with us, for those are the flotsam and jetsam of Ditko the man, who was born, lived and died. By insisting that his work speak for him, he ensured that all we really know of Ditko is in his marvelous drawings and his stories and his characters, and they are immortal, or at least longer-lasting than flesh and blood.

THAT Steve Ditko is as alive today as he was when the figures first leapt out of his fingers and onto the page. All we need to do is pick up one of the millions of books and magazines where his work was published and open it. And there is Steve Ditko, alive and well. The evidence is right there, still climbing walls and traveling between dimensions and choosing between right and wrong and running and jumping or sitting fearfully in the night:

Ditko lives.

Published by WarrenBluhm

Wordsmith and podcaster, Warren is a reporter, editor and storyteller who lives near the shores of Green Bay with his wife, two golden retrievers, Dejah and Summer, and Blackberry, an insistent cat. Author of Echoes of Freedom Past, Full, Refuse to be Afraid, Gladness is Infectious, 24 flashes, How to Play a Blue Guitar, Myke Phoenix: The Complete Novelettes, A Bridge at Crossroads, The Imaginary Bomb, A Scream of Consciousness, and The Imaginary Revolution.

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