Steve Ditko, the legendary and reclusive creator or co-creator of some of the most popular characters in comic book history—including Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and even recent fan-favorites like Squirrel Girl—has died. Famous in later years as much for his politics and his hatred of publicity as for his numerous accomplishments, Ditko nevertheless almost single-handedly redefined the look and feel of American comics in the 1960s and 1970s, introducing characters—like weedy, anxious teen Peter Parker—whose human nature was often as important as their superhuman feats.
A comics fan from a young age, Ditko began obsessively studying his artform from the ’40s onward, working under famed artists like James Robinson, Joe Simon, and Jack Kirby. He eventually caught the eye of a young Stan Lee, who brought him in to draw a number of features for Marvel (then Atlas) Comics. Ditko seemed to thrive under Lee’s semi-infamous “Marvel Method”—in which Lee, as writer, provided one-sentence descriptions for stories and books, while his artists did the majority of the heavy lifting on storytelling, pacing, etc.—producing numerous short tales under the Amazing Fantasy line of books. The most famous of these now, of course, is 1962's Amazing Fantasy #15, a.k.a. the comic book debut of Peter Parker, The Amazing Spider-Man.
It’s telling that Ditko—who designed the character’s costume, web-slinging gimmick, and more—only got the job because Lee was unhappy with Jack Kirby’s designs for a new “teen” hero, which had a far bulkier, lantern-jawed look than what Ditko eventually produced. Amazing Fantasy #15 was a huge success for the company, leading to an on-going title (and billions of dollars in comic, movie, and TV revenue ever since), with Ditko as the artist for the first 38 issues. His run on the title not only included the invention of iconic villains like the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, The Lizard, and more, but also some of the most celebrated art in all of comics history; the sequence from The Amazing Spider-Man #33, in which Spidey musters the strength to pull himself out of the rubble of a flooding building, is one of the most recognizable pages in Marvel’s entire library. (More recent fans might recognize an homage to it during the latter half of last year’s MCU film, Homecoming.)
Ditko contributed similarly memorable work to Marvel’s most prominent magical hero, Doctor Strange, imbuing the character’s travels with a surreal air that made them stand out from the more standard Marvel house style. But Ditko broke ranks with the company in 1966, reportedly over a personal feud with the more comfortably countercultural Lee. Over the next 50 years, Ditko would work as a journeyman artist of all stripes, drawing for pretty much every single working publisher in the comics business—including the occasional return to Marvel—and contributing work that ranged from revolutionary to rote.
Much of his personal passion in these later years, though, was devoted to his Ayn Rand-influenced philosophizing, a trend exemplified in his most personal creation, Objectivist vigilante “Mr. A,” a masked, trench-coated crime-fighter who refused to see any possibility of a moral grey, dispatching criminals with violent stoicism. (Ditko later acknowledged that D.C. Comics character The Question, who he created during one of his stints at Charlton Comics, was a more sanitized version of those same ideals.) In his later years, Ditko published extensive solo work along these same lines through independent presses, contrasting cramped political screeds with his still powerful linework and character designs.
Meanwhile, he resisted all trends toward publicity or interviews; even as his creations became some of the most lucrative intellectual properties on the planet, Ditko continued to doggedly dodge the limelight. A 2007 documentary, In Search Of Steve Ditko, contained numerous testimonials from his former co-workers and colleagues, but Ditko himself refused to participate, stating that his work spoke for itself.
And, to be fair, it did: Across the 50-or-so years of his professional life, Steve Ditko touched just about every major character in the comic book canon, usually changing them for the better. Even as his political leanings focused more and more on abstract ideals and rigid barriers, his art couldn’t help but embrace the humanity of his subjects: The stoop in Peter Parker’s spine, the haughtiness of Stephen Strange’s face; they all persist from the moment they sprung forth from Ditko’s pencil, anxious and screwed up and undeniably human in a way superheroes had never been before.
Ditko was 90. According to The Hollywood Reporter, his body was discovered in his New York apartment last week.