The invisible hand behind Spidey
Brilliant but eccentric, Spider-Man's forgotten right-wing co-creator surfaces in a new book
SARMISHTA SUBRAMANIAN | July 16, 2008 |
In a blockbuster season littered with brooding heroes like Batman and Hellboy the superhero who casts the largest shadow may be the one who’s not popping up at multiplexes. When Spider-Man burst on the page in 1962, he revolutionized a comics scene littered with chiseled, preternaturally confident men of action. Here, suddenly, was a bookworm who didn’t fit in at school, looked weedy in his spider suit, wrestled with moral choices, and who, the moment he’d foiled his first criminals, was branded a social menace. Spidey was the first of the troubled, loner superheroes. The man to thank for that, most people would say, is Stan Lee. But behind every great comic by Stan Lee was a thankless artist toiling in the shadows, and behind Spider-Man was his brilliant, and brilliantly eccentric, co-creator, Steve Ditko.If Ditko has been eclipsed in the historical record, monetarily, too, he was shafted: paid a paltry page rate for work that would generate millions for others. Outside comic-book fandom, where he’s viewed as a legend for works like Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, Ditko is utterly unknown. His pieces are rare on the lucrative art market. Now the handsome Strange and Stranger: The Strange World of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics Books), the first real retrospective on the artist, by a Toronto author and Ditko authority, Blake Bell, pieces together a magnificent portrait of this elusive genius. Bell had his work cut out for him. The 80-year-old Ditko isn’t the easiest guy to memorialize. He doesn’t give interviews, and there are few pictures of him in circulation. As prickly as he is visionary, he refused to participate in the book, which, he told Bell five years before its publication, was “a poison sandwich.” (This even though Bell had, for a time, maintained Ditko's first official Web site, developed in conjunction with the artist and his publisher.) He has waged ridiculous wars over the years with collaborators and even fans—all detailed to great effect in this engaging biography. It turns out one reason it’s hard to buy art by Ditko is that he hoards it all. (He has denounced the comics art world as a “thieves market”—which in a sense it is, says Bell, since much of the work was pilfered or withheld from its creators.) Greg Theakston, a cartoonist, tells a story in Strange and Stranger about visiting Ditko in his studio in New York—one of few people to make it past the front door. He noticed Ditko was using as a cutting board something with a “Comics Code” stamp. A closer look revealed it was an original Ditko page from the’50s. Ditko had thousands of them socked away.