Thursday, October 04, 2007

Spider-Man co-creator has own secret identity

A "Doctor Strange" panel with art by Steve Ditko.
It’s all in the hands.

Well, maybe not. But Steve Ditko’s hands are distinctive — both his own and the ones he draws.

The hands Ditko illustrates on the printed page are weird, contorted and as expressive as eyes in their ability to convey emotion and mood. The hands at the ends of Ditko’s arms, however, are no less distinguished.

They’re the hands that gave birth in 1962 to Marvel Comics superhero Spider-Man.

Even people who don’t read comic books have heard of Spider-Man’s other parent, Stan Lee. Lee makes sure of that. So, it’s odd that most people have never heard of Ditko. Odd, that is, until you know a little something about him.

Ditko’s reclusiveness makes J.D. Salinger seem like Paris Hilton. Only four photographs of Ditko are known to exist, and he doesn’t grant interviews. From his studio in New York City, the 79-year-old artist still toils away on comics few will ever see.

He has turned down any share of the profits generated by the three “Spider-Man” movies. His life is one of self-imposed obscurity.

That made things somewhat difficult for British TV presenter Jonathan Ross when he decided to make a documentary about Spider-Man’s co-creator. The one-hour program “In Search of Steve Ditko” aired on BBC Four last month and appeared on YouTube briefly before the BBC’s copyright police intervened.

Eventually, Ross and writer/Ditko fan Neil Gaiman, best known for his “Sandman” graphic novels, got in to see the intensely private artist, but Ditko declined to appear on camera. Instead, he spoke to the two for half an hour before sending them on their way with a stack of Ditko’s more recent works.

Apart from designing Spider-Man and plotting many of the character’s early stories (Lee provided the cornball dialogue), Ditko created another Marvel superhero, Dr. Strange.

While never as popular as Spidey, Dr. Strange was a hit on college campuses and became, probably to Ditko’s horror, something of a drug-culture icon.

Dr. Strange, a master of the mystic arts, regularly visited otherworldly landscapes, and for some readers, that was the ultimate trip. An allusion to Dr. Strange appears in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 counterculture book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

For his part, Ditko in the 1960s was attracted to the novels of Ayn Rand, and soon he adopted her radically individualist philosophy of rational self-interest, Objectivism.

To this day, no one is sure why Ditko left Marvel. The prevailing theory is that the last straw was a dispute with Lee over the identity of Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin. Lee wanted the Goblin to be an established character, but Ditko wanted the Goblin to be a nobody — symbolizing the Objectivist view of evil.

Oddly, Spider-Man is, in a way, an anti-Objectivist. He always makes sacrifices for the good of others. But perhaps Ditko intended a lesson of sorts in that. What does Spider-Man get for his selfless ways? A life of misery, mostly. His alter ego, Peter Parker, is always broke. He never has money to help his poor Aunt May whenever she gets sick or faces losing her home — both of which happen a lot.

No issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” during the Lee/Ditko era ended without Peter wallowing in self-pity.

After Marvel, Ditko worked for poverty-row publisher Charlton Comics. The pay wasn’t great, but he had more creative freedom, working on characters like Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle, and, most importantly, The Question.

A brief stint at DC Comics followed, and along the way, Ditko turned out explicitly philosophical comics for smaller publishers. One character to emerge from that, Mr. A, served as Ditko’s mouthpiece: There is black, and there is white, and there is nothing in between.

For Ditko, the principle of the thing is the principle of the thing. So, whatever his reasons, he remains in the shadows, letting his work speak for itself.

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