The comics industry has lost another icon of the Silver Age, and this loss is felt by both DC Entertainment and Marvel Comics.
Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Marvel staples Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, as well as DC’s own Creeper, The Question, and Hawk and Dove, passed away at the age of 90 years old.
His death was confirmed by the NYPD to The Hollywood Reporter, but no cause of death was listed for the artist, who was found deceased in his apartment.
Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in November 1927, Stephen J. Ditko was the son of a steel mill worker father and homemaker mother. Ditko’s passion for comics was passed down from his father, who was a fan of Prince Valiant, the Spirit, and Batman. Following high school, Steve served in the military in post-war Germany drawing comic strips for an army paper. After being discharged, Steve moved to Manhattan in 1950 and honed his artistic abilities under the guidance of Batman artist Jerry Robinson at what would become known in modern times as the School of Visual Arts. Three years later, Steve would be working at the studio of Captain America co-creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simonson until tuberculosis would force him home to Johnstown to recover for a year. In 1955, he began drawing at Atlas Comics, which would soon evolve into Timely Comics and finally Marvel Comics, first collaborating with fellow future legend, Stan Lee.
His contributions to the foundations to the resulting Marvel Universe cannot be overstated, for it began with a spider bite.
In the early 1960s, Ditko was the penciller who gave Spider-Man’s distinctive costume and body language after Lee, now 97, felt artist Jack Kirby was not the right fit for the character upon his conception. Ditko’s knack for drawing the everyman established Peter Parker as the skinny bespectacled teenager as much as Ditko’s designs for the costume and trademark web-shooters.
A throwaway story in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy, Spider-Man’s origin became an instant sensation, and six months later The Amazing Spider-Man #1 hit the stands with his co-creators at the helm. While Stan provided the scripts, Steve was the creative visionary behind the designs of many of Spidey’s Silver Age rogues gallery, including The Chameleon, The Lizard, The Scorpion, Doctor Octopus, Electro, The Green Goblin, and many others. By issue 25, Ditko would receive a byline for plot in addition to his art credit.
However, after a dispute with Lee over the yet-to-be-revealed identity of The Green Goblin – Lee wanted then-supporting character Norman Osborn while Steve opted for the more-established J. Jonah Jameson – Ditko left the book after the 38th issue. Lee then quickly appointed John Romita Sr. to pick up artistic duties, for which he would do so until issue 100. (This fight is one of the many rumored motivations for Ditko’s complete break from Stan and from Marvel)
Another counter-culture character Ditko co-created for that company was Doctor Strange, a gifted but arrogant surgeon maimed in an accident and reborn as a benevolent master of the mystic arts. The psychedelic visuals of the dimensional battles and visualization of Strange’s spellcasting conceived by Steve would be the model that other artists would follow in his stead. Today, both properties have received their respective cinematic treatments with Ditko listed as co-creator in the credits. However, as opposed to his former partner Stan, Steve was content to sit on the sidelines, instead of providing cameos. “We didn’t approach him,” Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson went on record in 2016. “He’s like J.D. Salinger. He is private and has intentionally stayed out of the spotlight like J.D. Salinger.”
Following his departure from Marvel, Steve contributed his talents to other comics publishers, such as Charlton and DC Comics. For DC, Ditko created memorable off-the-wall superheroes, such as The Question, The Creeper, and crime-fighting duo Hawk and Dove, who will be seen in the upcoming Titans live-action series on DC’s streaming service. Ditko returned in 1979 to Marvel to work on Micronauts and Machine Man, and retained his status as a reclusive freelancer through the 90s. Squirrel Girl, currently a cult favorite, was one of his final creations for Marvel back in 1992.
Ditko never married and is survived by none save for his peers, former contemporaries, and a lasting legacy from two of the most prominent companies in the comics industry. At the time of his death, he had owned and maintained a Manhattan studio where he continued to work. However, the amount of unpublished works and published works are undetermined at this time.
Fellow Marvel and DC legend George Perez once said that if he could have a say as to how he would leave this Earth, it would be at the drawing table leaving a piece unfinished. It would seem that the J.D. Salinger of comics realized part of that ambition.
Rest In Peace, Steve. And thank you.