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Biographies of the Stars

Steve Ditko

It was undoubtedly a cold winter day when Steve Ditko was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on November 2, 1927. But, cold as it may have been, it gave birth to one of the hottest artists around comics ever.

Graduating from the Cartoonists & Illustrators school he went to work for various comic publishers in the early fifties in the heyday of the horror comic. His first comic book work appeared in Prize's Black Magic #27 dated late 1953. His next job seems to be in Charlton's The Thing #12 from December 1953 and then Farrell's Fantastic Fears #5 cover dated Jan 1954.

After this point most of his work seems to be at Charlton Comics illustrating horror & fantasy stories in the comic titles The Thing and Space Adventures. Just a couple of the numerous copies, and even occasional outright swipe of the EC comics line, these titles were rather lackluster and unremarkable once you got past the extreme violence portrayed within their pages.

Of the Thing, the last six issues, five of which saw contributions from Steve, were far superior to the first eleven. From the start Steve was a feature cover artist and his first effort for them appears on the cover of issue #12. This cover was no less violent than the issues preceding it, and Steve's drawing depicted women having their blood withdrawn from their bodies by long toothed vampiresses. The publishers thought so much of Ditko's work that he was allowed to sign his name, which appeared prominently on the cover.

The covers for the next three issues were drawn by Steve also and they were as violent as #12. Issue thirteen had a cover showing a man reading a book from which demons emerged to haunt him. It is a cover reminiscent of one of Steve's classic stories from his career at Warren entitled "Collector's Item".

For some reason he did not draw the cover or any stories for issue #16, but he did draw the cover to the final issue of the title (#17) and this one is unquestionably his best effort until that date. The sorcerer motif & design will later be showcased in his Dr. Strange series.

At the same time he was doing this fabulous work, he was also drawing covers & stories for a companion title "Space Adventures" (Undoubtedly a title swiped from DC's Strange Adventures). Again his work was outstanding on this comic & these covers are probably the first of many "classic" works that Steve created from 1953-1970.

An interesting note. Look at the Ditko cover to Space Adventures #12. Showing an alien entering a rocket ship through a circular entrance immediately reminds you of the Frazetta cover to Famous Funnies #213 which shows a variation of the same image. Naturally the thought is that Steve swiped the concept from Frank, but both books are cover dated September 1954! One wonders if both of them actually were inspired by Weird Science #19 or possibly that a sci-fi pulp had recently run a similar image. In any case it is a striking coincidence.

In 1956, either looking for more work or looking to work for a more prestigious publisher, Steve began illustrating horror & fantasy stories for Atlas comics, which five years later became Marvel.

He continued to work for Charlton for several years however & in the March 1960 issue of Space Adventures (#33) was introduced Steve's first attempt at a superhero, Captain Atom.

Why it took so long for any comic hero to have atom powers is surprising considering the public interest in atomic energy that began with the dropping of "Big Boy" on Hiroshima and "Little Boy" on Nagasaki at the end of World War 2.

No other comic he drew until this time would have prepared you for this. An astronaut bombarded by atomic rays in outer space, Captain Atom exploded onto the comics scene, literally with the force of an atomic bomb.

The same year he began artistic chores on an adaptation of a just released movie monster film. This adaptation of "Gorgo" was so popular & successful that it was kept on Charlton's publication list for several years. The success of Gorgo also prompted Charlton to publish another movie monster adaptation from the film "Konga", which also lasted for several years.

By the summer of 1962, Steve's workload is enormous! Captain Atom, Konga, Gorgo and other sci-fi, fantasy and horror jobs at Charlton, and several fantasy & sci-fi stories a month for Marvel. He must have been pencilling with his left hand while he inked with his right hand, not slept a wink & drank more coffee than anyone living to keep up the hectic pace.

But it would be this summer that the character acknowledged & revered as his greatest contribution to comics would appear.......

Jack Kirby & Joe Simon had designed a superhero in the fifties for Harvey Comics that never became reality. It was entitled "the Silver Spider" and was about a young boy who, with the help of a magic ring, became a superhero with the powers of a spider (see Greg Theakston's Pure Images for more info).

When Marvel was in it's death throes that summer, Jack Kirby saw his meal ticket disintegrating. He had arrived at the Marvel offices one day to see Stan Lee crying like a baby as the repossessors carried his desk & chairs out the door (Jack certainly would not have been out of work long, but there were not many comic publishers about at the moment), and the gentleman he always was, he literally created the Marvel universe which helped to raise Marvel from the ashes like a Phoenix. Jack just couldn't let Stan Lee down at his darkest moment.

One of the ideas that Jack must have thrown in was the Silver Spider, which was revamped and in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) Ditko's "Spider-Man" premiered.

A bespectacled, bookworm teen who was the constant foible for his classmates named Peter Parker is bitten by a small spider accidentally exposed to radiation (!) in a classroom presentation and miraculously acquires super powers derived from arachnid traits. Super strength & the ability to stick to any surface transformed Peter Parker from a horn-rimmed nebbish into a super powered hero. Unfortunately for Peter, like all heroes he had to maintain his outwardly nebbish persona to protect those close to him and this inner conflict caused him much heartache through the years.

Spider-Man was an immediate hit. The teenaged Parker was like no comic hero at the time and struck a chord with kids all over America. Here was a young boy just like them that they could identify with much more closely than any other comic hero. After all, did kids dream of themselves being heroes or did they think of themselves as adults who were heroes? I say the former (possibly the biggest reason that Captain Marvel had such a high readership in the forties & fifties). Taking that into perspective it is easy to understand the popularity of the character.

Shortly thereafter he added another great feature to his artistic output. Dr. Strange to many is the very best feature series that Ditko ever contributed to the comics field. One of the most original comic characters, Strange occupied two dimensions - ours & the ethereal dimension of the sorcerer. Aided by the "Eye of Agamoto" and his teacher "the Ancient One", he fended off the evil intentions of such villains as Baron Mordo, Nightmare & the omnipotent Dread Dormammu!

By the middle of 1963, it must have been just too much work and slowly Steve stopped doing many of the books he had been working on. First Captain Atom ended with Space Adventures #42, then the Gorgo & Konga books and finally he was only doing Spidey & Dr Strange, occasionally doing a story for Warren mags or a Charlton book. Fantastic Giants in 1964 reprinted the original Gorgo & Konga stories & had some new fantasy stories. However the most interesting item about the comic was the cover. Not the art , which was new. Not the artist which was Ditko. The item was the central blurb - "A Steve Ditko Special" was prominently featured right there in the middle underneath the illustration of a guy with a bottle of india ink for a head. Naturally the ink-head was Steve himself.

This blurb was astounding! Nowhere that comes to mind had there ever been a comic that so featured an artist's name. The closest that you could get would be golden age DC covers that had announced "A Simon & Kirby Story". Steve had really hit the big time.

Unfortunately however at the same time that his Marvel characters were big stars as was Steve, his relationship with Stan Lee began to drive a wedge between Steve & Marvel and in the summer of 1966 with the July issues of Spidey & Strange Tales, he left Marvel.

Charlton was more than happy that Steve returned to them and he was immediately allowed to resurrect Captain Atom & the Blue Beetle, a character that Charlton had acquired in the 1950's from Holyoke, a defunct comic publisher, and a character they had briefly resurrected in the middle fifties, as well as just shortly before Steve returned.

He also created a new hero, the mysterious Question. Tremendously similar to the Shadow, the Question was a vigilante who frequently acted as cop, judge & jury. Villains & heroes were always dressed in the universally recognizable Black or White, and never was there a half villain. If you were bad, YOU WERE BAD, that was all there was to it.

Steve was also drawing sci-fi & fantasy stories here. But he wanted to do the superheroes and after the Captain Atom & the Blue Beetle series' both failed he moved again, to DC. The new books, the "Creeper " & the "Hawk & the Dove" were to be his last major contributions to comics before melting into the relative obscurity of minor publishers & fanzines.

But actually, he was far from in obscurity - it only seemed that way. Though he was not being showcased by Marvel or DC after the Creeper & H&D series' failed, he was outputting an enormous quantity of art at Charlton. He drew loads of fanzine stories - most notably Mr. A, and mostly for Wally Wood who we all know published lots of fanzines.

In more recent years Steve has illustrated numerous books for all publishers. He has also influenced many an artist. Greatly admired, he is a giant.

Dr. Strange - a page from Strange Tales #127, scanned from the original art.

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