In a February, 1963, letter to the long-defunct fanzine The Comic Reader, Marvel Comics head honcho Stan Lee teased the impending arrival of an all-new superhero. “We have a new character in the works for Strange Tales,” Lee wrote. “It has sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him. ’Twas Steve’s idea.”
The new character was Dr. Stephen Strange, a smug surgeon who assumes the mantle of all-powerful “Sorcerer Supreme” following a career-ending automobile accident. And “Steve” was Steve Ditko, the legendary comic book artist best known for co-creating (with Lee) Marvel’s gangly teenage web-slinger, Spider-Man.
Ditko’s solo creation, Doctor Strange, is the latest Marvel backbencher to be treated to a big-budget adaptation. While Smilin’ Stan Lee’s Hitchcock-ish, camera-mugging cameo is a sure thing, viewers aren’t likely to spot the Sorcerer Supreme’s actual, accredited creator popping up anywhere in the new Benedict Cumberbatch-starring film. Shying away from media, living in near-seclusion, willfully distancing himself from whatever glamour the profession of comic-book artist may possess, Steve Ditko’s story is its own strange tale.
Born in Johnstown, Pa., in 1927, Ditko studied cartooning and illustration under Jerry Robinson, an artist best known for his work on Batman comics in the 1940s. A diligent student and tireless worker, Ditko found early success at low-budget publisher Charlton Comics, illustrating horror, sci-fi and suspense stories.
He later moved to New York, working for Marvel precursor Atlas contributing to tale-focused anthology titles such as Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense. It was in the August, 1962, issue of such an anthology, Amazing Tales, that Ditko’s most popular co-creation, the Amazing Spider-Man, made his premiere. And it was in a July, 1963, issue of Strange Tales (issue #110) that Ditko unveiled Doctor Strange.
Strange was a different kind of superhero. While early stories focused on the magician’s melees with rogues and rivals, Ditko soon moved the stories in more far-out directions that jived with the emerging culture of psychedelia and Swingin’ Sixties mind-expansion. The artwork became trippier, almost hallucinatory. Likewise, the rogues gallery grew more spectacular, with Strange squaring off against dream warriors, Satanic flame-demons and, in a July ’65 issue, a cosmic entity called Eternity, a physical embodiment of the entire universe.
As Blake Bell writes in Strange and Stranger, an exhaustive illustrated biography of Ditko, “By 1965, Doctor Strange was beginning to reflect Ditko’s separation from the Marvel mindset … Absent was Lee’s irreverent touch, or a cast of supporting characters to help Strange shoulder the narrative load. He became an outcast from both humans and the paranormal beings that considered him an interloper. He was destined to endure his life in solitude even as he was saving mankind.”
Around the same time, Ditko himself withdrew into solitude. Far from the sort of psychedelic doodler suggested by Strange’s adventures, Ditko had become obsessed with Objectivism, the philosophical system developed by Ayn Rand in her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
Prioritizing the happiness of the individual as humanity’s noblest aim, Objectivism made a virtue of selfishness. As a worldview, Objectivism is pretty much the opposite of Spider-Man’s oft-quoted maxim that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The machine-like efficiency of Marvel Comics – the house style, often called the “Marvel Method,” saw Lee taking writing credit for scenarios devised by artists – began to scrape against Ditko’s artistic individualism. Rand’s thinking also ruled out the supernatural as irrational, leaving little room for “master of mystic arts” Strange in Ditko’s ever-winnowing worldview. And so, like the stubborn architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Ditko walked, parting ways with Marvel in 1966.
He returned to Charlton Comics, where he created the Randian superhero Mr. A. – a hard-nosed reporter by day and vigilante by night who handed out black-and-white calling cards to symbolize the belief that in life there is only good and evil, with no mushy moral middle. Like Ditko’s later DC creation, The Question, Mr. A was given to didactic monologues, which most readers took as Ditko’s own worldview. Ditko himself wouldn’t clarify – he retired from public life, refusing appearances and interviews, retreating further inward.
Still, his reclusiveness and abrasive political sermonizing only stoked Ditko’s legend. Many later artists, influenced by Ditko’s work, reached out. In a 2007 BBC documentary, Sandman creator Neil Gaiman tracked down Ditko, who refused to appear on camera. In the early nineties, writer and artist Mike Allred wrote to his hero. Allred wanted to see if Ditko was interested in contributing to a card set featuring another of Allred’s creations, the indie comics superhero Madman. “He responded telling me he would get nothing out of drawing someone else’s creation,” Allred said. “It was a very terse, even rude response. But the fact that he responded at all was a thrilling surprise.”
My own phone call to Ditko’s office in Manhattan’s Upper West Side proved similarly unproductive. Reaching Ditko, who just turned 89, on a Monday afternoon and expressing that I’d like to speak with him for this article, he curtly responded, “No, no, no!” and hung up, which is exactly what I expected. Among a certain breed of fans, such a response is its own kind of souvenir – even better than an autograph scored at a comic book convention.
Allred compares Ditko to some of America’s more notorious and eccentric recluses. “He’s our J.D. Salinger,” he says. “Our Howard Hughes.” While even Ditko’s disciples find their hero’s hard-right politics cold, there’s something perversely admirable in them.
What a ludicrous thing, equipping caped crusaders with extended ideological monologues on the nature of morality! In this way, Ditko’s heavy-handed philosophizing anticipated the current, post-Dark Knight climate of superhero cinema, where comic-book characters in skinny spandex mull matters of global security and state surveillance.
Like a deformed half-brother hidden away in the musty attic of a gothic novel, Ditko is the isolated, outrageous, sort-of-embarrassing secret in Marvel’s history of polished media-savvy, the dour scowl lurking just beneath Smilin’ Stan Lee’s benign grin. His legendary status in the world of comic books, and comic-book movies, is indisputable. But in his self-sufficiency, isolationism and status as a reclusive social outcast, Ditko has transformed himself into something even stranger: a real-life Randian hero.
With great power comes great responsibility. For Steve Ditko, like Ayn Rand, that means responsibility to one’s own principles, however narrowly defined.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated Steve Ditko was born in Jonestown, Pa. In fact, he was born in Johnstown.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: