I wrote my first letter to Steve Ditko in early 1973, while I was still in high school. It was the typical letter, the type a budding fan-artist back then might send to a seasoned professional comics artist — full of effusive praise, capped with a request for some secret kernel of artistic knowledge that would magically transform overnight a fan’s crude artistic efforts into professional-level artwork. Ditko did his best to answer, giving what was, in retrospect, a solid list of advice.
Two years later, I wrote Ditko again, and this time, I asked if I could stop by his studio for a visit when I was in New York City later that year. He politely declined, and I pushed that idea into the dustbin of history – not realizing that 28 years later my request would become a reality.
More than two decades passed before I wrote Ditko again in 1997. In the interim, I joined the Air Force, learned to be an aircraft avionics technician, got married, had kids, opted to be a career Airman, traveled and lived abroad for nearly a decade, earned a bachelor’s degree, retrained into public affairs during the early 1990s military drawdown, kept drawing, and kept publishing my fanzine, “Maelstrom.” In fact, my third letter to Ditko was a request for what I knew was an extreme long shot: An interview for an upcoming issue of my ‘zine. Again, he politely declined.
I wrote a few more letters during the next two years about nothing in particular – including a couple while I was stationed in the Republic of Korea in 1998. In one of them, I included some terrifically supple Korean-made brushes that were ridiculously cheap, but feathered ink like a Winsor & Newton brush costing 30 times as much.
I retired from the Air Force in 1999 and published “Maelstrom” #7, and dutifully sent Ditko a copy. Our correspondence continued off-and-on until 2002, when I started preparing a Steve Ditko article for “Maelstrom” #8 – along with a cover I drew featuring many of Ditko’s more notable characters. When the issue was published, I sent him a copy, and something about it obviously struck a chord as he sent me several letters of comment. Suddenly, the correspondence was a regular back-and-forth, and as my letters got longer, so did his. Some of Steve’s letters were 10, 12, or even 16 pages long.
So when I found out I had a business trip to New York City in mid-August 2003, I figured it couldn’t hurt to call ahead of time and ask if it I could stop by his studio on August 11. To my surprise, he said yes. What follows are the notes I made in my hotel room immediately following visit number one, followed by notes I made after my second studio visit February 11, 2005.
At about 2:50 p.m., August 11, I knocked on Steve Ditko’s studio door. He opened it and said without introduction, “Hello, Russ,” and reached out and shook my hand. I went inside and gratefully thanked him for seeing me. I asked him where I could set down my laptop carry case and he pointed to a spot; then I asked him if he minded if I took off my suit coat, and he said, “Here, let me take that from you,” and he took my coat and hung it up on his coat rack.
He worked out of a small office on the seventh floor of an old 12-story office building and had been there about six years. The long, narrow office consisted of two rooms. The one closest to the single door leading to the office is like a small hallway and contained a wardrobe and coat rack. This short hallway lead to the rest of the office, which measured about eight feet wide by 20 feet long. At the end of the room is a large window overlooking 51st Street. On both sides of the main room were low bookshelves neatly filled with books, magazines, and boxes filled with paper and other items. There were many books about philosophy of all kinds.
Above the shelves, neatly taped on the walls were various art proofs, philosophical charts, magazine excerpts and other material. Proofs included the cover for “Avenging World,” “The Mocker,” “Static” and various issues of Ditko Package. No original art was evident. Also taped on the wall were the addresses for people he regularly corresponded with, such as Robin Snyder. He apparently read the “New York Post” regularly, as there was a small stack of them piled on a bookshelf.
He had two drawing/work areas in a squared off work space next to the window. One, which, because of the way the light entered through the window, looked like his main work space, was along the east wall. The shelves above this work space were filled with many small boxes and containers full of his art supplies. There were a wide variety of multi-color markers, pens and other supplies. The second flanked him to the right, and extended from the west wall to the east, leaving a three-foot space with which to enter the workspace from the main part of the room. He also had a wheeled office chair with several layers of home-made padding material on it. The office door is just across the hall from the elevators and looked like the rest of the doors in the hall, except his studio door has “S. Ditko” painted on it.
Steve was a fairly-thin, gray-haired older man. His thinning hair was combed back, and he wore narrow-frame glasses. He was wearing a short-sleeved soft-plaid shirt (with pocket) that buttoned up in front, a white t-shirt, and slacks. He stood nearly erect and appeared in excellent health. He was alert, moved deliberately, and had no signs of any age-related issues. His hearing was fine, and his mind was very quick and very sharp.
He is a friendly, articulate and affable man, who, while he may have strong opinions (as do I), was easy to talk with. He listened carefully to what I said, and if he agreed, he nodded or affirmed his agreement. If he disagreed, he would say so and explain why.
We stood and talked until 5 p.m. At one point, about a half hour into our talk, I asked if he would like to sit down. He quickly said, “No, I sit too much.”
He read voraciously and said he goes to the library regularly. He gave me a book by Ben Stein called “The View from Sunset Boulevard” (Basic Books, New York, 1979), which analyzed how a relatively small group of Hollywood creators view the world of business, and how their well-meaning but seriously distorted view is regularly foisted upon tens of millions of American television viewers each night in the form of prime-time sitcom and adventure shows. This is the same Yale-educated Ben Stein who was a presidential speechwriter, a successful columnist, and creator of the offbeat game show “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” which had won seven Emmys
Ditko said he still draws. He also said he has lots of ideas, but no real outlet to sell them to. He said editors regard his work and the work of other older artists as old-fashioned. “They think we’re dinosaurs,” he said.
When he was going through art school, he said he had to work very hard to improve his artwork. He said there were people all around him who could draw better, but they didn’t make it in the business because they didn’t keep at – they didn’t persist. At first, he said he was rejected by all the comic book publishers – there was about 13 or so in the early 1950s – but he kept at it.
Regarding the aborted book about Ditko which was to be published by Eclipse Comics in the 1980s, Ditko said Eclipse had the entire book written before they came to him for possible participation. After he agreed to assist, they went back and started unilaterally writing more – interviewing his brother and other people. Ditko said, “It was at that point I said, ‘Forget it!’”
He said he used a Winsor & Newton #3, and a Hunt 102 crowquill for drawing. I asked if he modified the crowquill tip by sanding it with emery cloth, etc., and he said he did not.
Ditko said he thought Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth might be a Fabian Socialist, and appears to be an adherent of George Bernard Shaw and others – except that he seems to like some aspects of capitalism when it suits him, such as his “Comics Journal” and Fantagraphics enterprises.
A while back, Ditko said an editor contacted him to draw a Batman story for DC. He got the script and the writing was such that he said you could have cut Batman out of the story and inserted someone with a business suit or any other character and it wouldn’t have made any difference. There was nothing in the story that was uniquely Batman. He told this to the editor and the editor said he’d get a different writer to do the story. The second story arrived, and it was even worse than the first.
Ditko said he liked illustrators such as Foster, Hogarth and Raymond, and added that he liked the old, large-sized Sunday comics pages. He said he did not like the small strips of today.
Someone called while I was there, and whoever it was, they apparently check up on Ditko every day.
He told me at times he felt Wallace Wood (Woody) seemed to be his own worst enemy. Ditko said he loved the way Woody inked his stuff and stated emphatically Woody could ink his work any day. He also said Frank Giacoia was a great inker. Steve felt some people had trouble inking his work because his penciling is so loose. He said Joe Kubert and Woody were the same way, in that respect.
He said he read a copy of the book, “The Intellectuals,” until it fell apart. Found another used copy recently and is starting to break that copy in.
Spider-Man was an angst-ridden anti-hero with problems, and Ditko saw that as the character progressed, Spider-Man was being saddled with more and more flaws and problems. Ditko said he knew that as more time passed, Spider-Man would eventually become unrecognizable as a hero. He said this in response to my comments about some of the strange incarnations Spider-Man has undergone over the years, such as Venom.
He saw the (first) Spider-Man film. He had mixed feelings about it and said it was too dark and he did not like its portrayal of the military and businessmen.
He talked about the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials and other such serials like “The Shadow” with Victor Jory, and noted how the actors said that despite the young audience for such fare, they always played their roles straight. This is not what happened with the “Batman” TV show or “The Shadow” movie. They did not respect the material and played it for laughs. I said that kids can see right through material that is not taken seriously by its creators, and Ditko emphatically agreed.
I asked if he read the pulp “Doc Savage” and he said he probably did.
He had not seen the film “Daredevil,” but someone wrote him and said it, too, was a very dark film.He said comics today don’t have heroic characters anymore. They are too dark.
He felt that many of those who criticize the philosophical aspects of his work know almost nothing about philosophy in the first place.
He loved to work with wash. Regarding the shading, he said he would visualize the image he was planning to draw and then do it.
The story “K,” which he drew with Duotone shading for the magazine “Mad Monsters” #1, was supposed to be shot by Charlton as line art, but they goofed and screened it like a photo instead. The results, he said, were terrible. That story had Frank Sinatra at the end of it.
At just after 5 p.m., while in the middle of a sentence, he suddenly paused as if some mental alarm clock had just triggered. His head turned toward a small clock on top of a book shelf as if to confirm the time, and he politely ended our meeting. I asked him if he would like to go somewhere to eat dinner, and he said no thanks, “There are too many distractions – people with cell phones and things like that.”
He got my suit coat from the coat rack, handed it to me, and escorted me to the door. As I waited for the elevator, he stood at the door and we talked until it arrived. We shook hands and I departed.
On Friday, February 11, 2005, from 2:40 p.m. until 5 p.m., I made my second visit to Steve Ditko’s studio on 51st and Broadway in Manhattan. For this visit, after much thought, I decided to bring a stack of dozens of publications, from all genres, spanning Ditko’s career — many with Post-it note tabs to flag a story or piece of art I was hoping to discuss. I had no way of knowing how Ditko would react to my request to go through the stack, but to my delight his interest was piqued, and he graciously agreed. He spent more than an hour flipping through the material, re-analyzing it, making comments, and reflecting. I believe he really enjoyed the entire exercise, which jogged his memory about a wide variety of topics.
And, as an added bonus, once the visit concluded and I was back in my hotel room furiously scribbling out page after page of notes about my visit while everything was still fresh in my mind, the stack of material helped me remember many more comments and anecdotes than I probably would have remembered otherwise. The list of publications Ditko and I went through follows this transcript.
Initial impressions: Ditko was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt with blue pin stripes. He still seemed in great health. His eyesight seemed excellent, and he moved spryly. He seemed very alert, had a great memory, and was very aware of current events. When I arrived, he was listening to a lite rock station on the radio.
He said he liked doing the five-page fantasy stories for Marvel. Stan Lee didn’t want fancy science-fiction costumes because he wanted the focus to be on the people rather than the hardware, so Ditko put his astronauts in t-shirts. Lee would never describe a monster for a story he wrote. He’d leave the look totally up to the artist. This is why the monsters drawn by Jack Kirby, Ditko, and Don Heck are all distinctively different.
While looking at the story, “I Wore… the Mask of Drothor!” He chuckled approvingly at the sight of the splash, after which I mentioned it was one of my favorite Marvel Monster splash pages of all time.
When he saw the story, “The Creature from the Black Bog!” he said, “I think Larry Lieber scripted that one.”
He said Joe Gill took the screenplay of Gorgo and adapted it. His adaptation impressed Ditko.
“The Question” lettering was done at Charlton on a giant typewriter. The artwork was actually rolled in like an oversized piece of typing paper.
The Spider-Man story development in the early stages of “Amazing Spider-Man” collaboration with Lee went as follows: Ditko and Lee would have a story discussion. Ditko would leave, pencil out the story and then, inside the panels, he’d write in the “panel script” (suggested dialogue and narration). He’d then bring it back in to Lee. They’d discuss the story from start to finish, Ditko would annotate changes outside the panels, and then Ditko would leave. Lee would then write in the final dialogue and the book would be lettered. Ditko would come in, take the pages back, and then make any changes during the inking process.
Ditko said Lee wanted a Spider-Girl after just a few issues. He had no long-term vision for Spider-Man. He never thought about what he would do with the characters from one issue to the next. He’d just say, “Let’s make Attuma the villain,” and Ditko said he would have to talk him out of it. Ditko said he started doing the plots all by himself “around issue 18 or so.” At around that same point, he said Lee stopped talking to him, so he plotted the remaining issues in his Spider-Man run with no input from Lee.
Ditko felt the credits should not have read, “Written by Stan Lee.” They should have read, “Dialogue by Stan Lee.”
Ditko said he was absolutely going to make Norman Osborne the Green Goblin. He was setting up Osborne, which is why his son Harry Osborne was introduced as Peter’s classmate in college.
The Green Goblin face was based on a medieval goblin gargoyle one might see on an old building.
Norman Osborne’s first appearance was at a club with J. Jonah Jameson, and he was unnamed. I asked Ditko about Osborne’s unique hairstyle, and he said he wanted a look that was distinctive and different to set Osborne apart from other characters. He added that such clarity was an important part of the story communication process.
The three-part story arc in “Amazing Spider-Man” #31-33, where Aunt May is dying, was intentionally designed to occur just as Peter Parker started college – for maximum dramatic effect.
The robots in “Amazing Spider-Man” #37 were designed to be a step ahead of robot designs from that period.
The name “Stephen Strange” was Lee’s idea. “It was Stan’s little joke,” Ditko said, adding that he never would have used that name for Dr. Strange. Ditko said he did, however, occasionally work the names of people he knew into stories.
Ditko said he used to have a whole collection of “National Geographic” magazines on hand for reference. He also had a file containing reference material for every part of the world. For example, he said he used a photo reference for a Tibetan monastery window he drew in a Dr. Strange story.
However, he did not always use the reference material he gathered. One time, he said he assembled some material for a story and then started drawing. The next thing he knew, the story was done, yet he hadn’t even glanced at any of reference material. “I’d let the story flow and it would sometimes draw itself.”
He said he used to commute to the city on a train with Charles Nicholas who created the original Blue Beetle. Ditko said when he was drawing the new Blue Beetle, he tried to work Nicholas’ name into a story, but it never happened.
When asked about the wordless Mr. A story in Martin Greim’s fanzine, “Comic Crusader Storybook,” Ditko said that the reason there was no dialogue or narration is because he thought enough fans were familiar with Mr. A by that time that they’d be able to follow such an experimental story.
Regarding the first Mr. A story that appeared in “Witzend,” Ditko said that Bill Pearson didn’t want to use it, possibly because Pearson didn’t like the philosophy of the strip. Ditko added that’s probably why Pearson did the “Mr. E” take-off of Ditko’s character. “Witzend” creator Wallace Wood, who was a great friend and collaborator of Ditko’s, apparently intervened, and the Mr. A was published.
Ditko said that the “Who dares…” pulled quote on Page 1 of the comic book “Mr. A” #1 was not written by him and was added without his knowledge. He added that the typeset text was originally hand-lettered, and also used without his knowledge. Ditko added that he had lettered the first story.
I asked about the perceived similarity between Mr. A and the Question. Ditko said in his mind, the two were unrelated. Mr. A first appeared in “Witzend,” and the Question was just a superhero in regular clothes.
While Ditko was looking at his wash story in “Tomb of Dracula” #2, he mentioned that the wash reproduction was terrible. Pointing to a few panels, he said, “There’s nothing there!” He went on to say that the only reason he did the story in wash was because the deadline was so tight, there was no way he could draw the story in pencil and then ink it.
While flipping through the “Eerie” story titled, “Collector’s Edition,” Ditko said the engraving-style artwork in the story was an experiment in black-and-white rendering. The technique on the “eyes” was done with white Zip-a-tone.
While looking at the “Isle of the Beast” story in “Eerie” #9, Ditko said, “That was a weird one.”
As Ditko looked at various “Creepy” and “Eerie” pages, I asked him how he came up with some of the amazing panels he drew, and he said he let the drawings guide themselves.
While looking through one of the “Amazing Spider-Man” books, he said the same thing regarding a long fight scene that was infused with very skillful choreography. He paused, looked at the scene, and gave it a satisfactory nod.
While looking at “Beware the Creeper” #1, I asked him about the origin of the character, and Ditko said the Creeper was his idea.
He said the same when we got to the “Hawk and Dove” books. The characters were his idea. The judge was supposed to be the central character, but because writer Steve Skeates was a “young radical” at the time, he was not a good fit for the book.
On the book, “3-D Substance,” he tried to give Jack C. Harris some input about the reproduction and layout development of the book, and Harris said, “I don’t need your input.”
I asked who influenced his art, and he said there was no single major influence. He said there were so many great illustrators back then, such as Alex Raymond, and he took in all of their work. I asked him if he ever had a mentor, and he answered, “No. I always worked alone.”
I asked about what I perceived as a similarity between his early 1950s work and Joe Kubert’s. I mentioned that when I was a very young fan, I sometimes got their earliest works confused. Ditko said there was no link, but he was aware of Kubert’s work at DC on Hawkman and Vigilante.
At one point, Ditko related an anecdote about him, Wallace Wood, Paul Levitz, and the comic book series, “The Stalker.” Ditko penciled the series and Wood inked it. After the first issue was put to bed, it was time for Levitz to divvy out the original artwork between the two veteran artists. Ditko said that because of Levitz’s experiences and/or observations involving original art among other artist team-ups, Levitz seemed to expect an argument. Ditko said he and Wood just looked at each other and said, “How about you take the pages for the first issue, and I’ll take the pages for the next one?” And just like that it was settled. Ditko said he always enjoyed working with Wood.
Ditko lamented that none of his post-Spider-Man books for DC or Marvel sold as well. He said he had too many “silent fans” – people who said they were fans but did not buy his books. He added, if his books don’t sell, why should a company hire him to draw for them? After all, a business is a business. Although he did qualify that with the statement, “They are expensive, though.”
At one point during the conversation, I said, “I’m going to ask you something, and you can tell me to shut up if you want to, but is the reason you don’t attend conventions like the one at San Diego due to money concerns? I mean, I’ll fly you there so you could attend.” He replied emphatically, “No, no. That’s not it at all!”
At one point he said, “I don’t get out much.”
He also said that he’s one of the few creators from his generation who is still around.
I found it curious when, during one of our side conversations, Ditko said he believed he didn’t have a set style, and that it changed with the type of story he was working on. He said he believed this differentiated him from someone like John Severin, whose style he believed to be more distinctive. I replied that I can always recognize the Ditko style. He mulled what I said, but did not respond, and the conversation moved elsewhere. In retrospect, Ditko is not the first professional artist I’ve run across who did not appear to realize just how strong his/her artistic style is, and that there are those of us who can spot such individual styles almost immediately.
Several people regularly write to him. A friend sent him a tape of the “60 Minutes” television episode about Stan Lee. Someone he knew well called him while I was there. They had a brief, friendly conversation. He received a second such call later on.
He has a cassette tape recorder and a large variety of tapes — many were objectivistic in nature. There was a VCR box stacked in a corner, so he may have access to a VCR as well. We did not discuss any objectivist topics while I was there – just comics, world events, and a little general philosophy.
He told me that a Mr. A project was on hold right now, and that Robin Snyder was unable to publish it for some reason. That’s been the case for about a year.
I gave him the book, “News and the Culture of Lying: How Journalism Really Works,” and a near mint copy of the Wood/Ditko comic, “Heroes, Inc.” He was appreciative of the comic, and a few weeks after my visit, he wrote and thanked me again for the journalism book, which he had already read and enjoyed.
He said that DC and Marvel send him “legally required payment” for work of his that they reprint.
Ditko said that Marvel sent comp copies, such as the “Essentials” reprints, but DC did not, with one exception: In 2000, they sent him a copy of the Millennium Edition reprint of “Mysterious Suspense” #1. It was a first, and he said he was surprised to receive it. But he said they did not send him the reprint hardcover books “like the recent Captain Atom book.”
Anecdote postscript: After I returned to Illinois from New York, I contacted Paul Levitz, who was then the president and publisher of DC Comics, and asked him about the DC comp policy, and asked whether or not Ditko should be receiving comp copies. Levitz said that Ditko should have been on the comp list, and he would ensure Ditko received the hardcover reprints of “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” and “Captain Atom.” In a February 20, 2005 letter to me, Ditko said that he had already received the former from DC, and the latter was forthcoming.
As promised, here’s the list of publications I brought to Ditko’s studio during my second visit:
- “3-D Substance” #1
- “Avenging World” – 1973 comic book; published by Bruce Hershenson
- “Avenging World” – Aug 2002 magazine-sized volume; published by Robin Snyder
- “Sinister Tales” 186 (United Kingdom)
- “The Tomb of Dracula” #2
- “Showcase” #75 (Hawk and Dove)
- “Hawk and Dove” #1
- “Hawk and Dove” #2
- “Beware the Creeper” #1
- “Machine Man” #10
- “Mysterious Suspense” #1 (Sept 2000) – Millennium Edition reprint
- “Stalker” #1
- “Unusual Tales” #10
- “Haunted” #1
- “Gorgo” #16
- “Blue Beetle” #4 (Dec. 1967)
- “Fantastic Giants” #24
- “Mocker” trade edition
- “The Comic Crusader” #4 (fanzine)
- “Witzend” #8 (fanzine)
- “The Collector” #27 (fanzine)
- “Comic Crusader Storybook” (fanzine)
- “Inside Comics” #2 (fanzine)
- “A 50’s Ditko Cover Gallery” (fanzine)
- “Mr. A” #1 (1973)
- “The Essential Spider-Man” Vol. 1
- “The Essential Spider-Man” Vol. 2
- Amazing Adult Fantasy #7
- Steve Ditko’s 32 Page Package
- “Creepy” #13 – “Second Chance!”
- “Eerie” #6 – “Deep Ruby!”
- “Eerie” #9 – “Isle of the Beast!”
- “Eerie” #135 – Reprint stories include:
- “The Spirit of the Thing!”
- “Collector’s Edition!”
- “Beast Man!”
- “Blood of the Werewolf!”
- “Second Chance!”
- “Where Sorcery Lives!”
- “City of Doom!”
- “The Incredible Shrieking Man!”
- “The Fly!”
- “Demon Sword!”
I also brought along a collection of early 1970s reprints of Ditko’s early 1960s fantasy stories that, as a young fan, I had torn from the reprint comics and then stapled together into thick “annual-sized” volumes. The stories we went through included:
- “The Thing Behind the Wall!”
- “Long Live the King!”
- “The Voice from Nowhere!”
- “The Secret of the Black Planet”
- “I Can’t Escape from the Creeping Things!”
- “The Face!”
- “One Look Means Doom!”
- “The Creature from the Black Bog!”
- “Enter….the Robot!”
- “I Must Find ‘Those Who Lurk Below!’”
- “I am…Gorak!”
- “I Dared to Defy Merlin’s… Black Magic!”
- “The Painting”
- “The Man Who Lost the World!”
- “The Terrible Trap!”
- “My Friend is… Not Quite Human!”
- “I Wore… the Mask of Drothor!”
- “The Ape Man”
- “Behold! I am the Master of Time!”
- “I Live Again!”
- “I am a Victim of the Sorcerer!”