How do we honor the legacy of Steve Ditko?

Posthumous praise is almost always bittersweet. When Steve Ditko was pronounced dead on June 29 at age 90, it seemed that the accomplishments of his life came bursting out of the woodwork, as a flustered cavalcade of eulogy writers scrambled to piece together a narrative from the life of a recluse. A recluse who just, y’know, happened to have created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

Perhaps more bittersweet is the tendency of pop culture memory to dissipate and fragment. Those my age know Spider-Man through McGuire, Garfield or Holland, or came to know the character through newer issues, the character handled by a multitude of writers since his creation. Ditko’s influence and legacy live in these interpretations. But the Boomers mourn differently, harking back to the halcyon days of sea monkeys and a thriving print industry, stumbling upon a copy of Amazing Fantasy 15 on a crisp summer day in 1962.  So how does one remember Steve Ditko?

 

You have to give props to Ditko, who stubbornly insisted on creative integrity even if it meant butting heads, but the result of that is a long line of severed relationships, vague anecdotes from people whose encounters with him were as good as a passing glance.

 

We can begin by giving credit where credit is due. While Stan Lee has been often credited as Spider-Man’s main creator, Ditko was the one who designed the costume and made Spider-Man’s trademark spider sense warning lines. His time working on Doctor Strange further solidified his reputation as one of the comic industry’s best artists — no one was doing psychedelic renderings of impossible worlds like he was. And that was just Marvel. Ditko also created DC’s The Question, a crimefighting conspiracy theorist without a face who’d end up inspiring Rorschach from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.

Ditko was also, however, not exactly known for making friends. His departure from Marvel has often been attributed to tensions between him and Lee. He constantly refused interviews and public appearances, preferring to let his art speak for itself, and was temperamental when he felt he was being misread. At some point in his career he used his work as a conduit to preach his Ayn Rand-inspired beliefs. You have to give props to Ditko, who stubbornly insisted on creative integrity even if it meant butting heads, but the result of that is a long line of severed relationships, vague anecdotes from people whose encounters with him were as good as a passing glance.

 

When asked about The Question and Mr. A, two characters he considers the best expression of his worldview, he answers, almost heroically: “A man is what he stands for — why is it right to stand for it and to protect and defend for all the time? In the struggle, a man can lose only if he gives in, defeated by self destruction, by accepting the wrong as right to act against himself.”

 

It is strange, always, figuring out how to grieve for a culturally important figure. The first instinct when a celebrity’s death circulates is to ardently humanize them — quote their best quotes, roll out the thank-you-for-everything’s, celebrate how their lives impacted others in personal ways. But Ditko was impersonal in that sense — inseparable from his work, loathed the idea of dwelling on the success of past projects. How do you fish out a multidimensional human being from that? From the pages he worked on, the characters he made, the film adaptations he couldn’t care less about?

Perhaps that is the best way to remember Ditko — as an artist who constantly sought to tell their stories on their own terms. We have one rare exception to that though: the last interview he ever gave, in 1968. When asked about The Question and Mr. A, two characters he considers the best expression of his worldview, he answers, almost heroically: “A man is what he stands for — why is it right to stand for it and to protect and defend for all the time? In the struggle, a man can lose only if he gives in, defeated by self destruction, by accepting the wrong as right to act against himself.” Powerful words that resonate especially well when you consider that the man basically freelanced his way to old age. What a guy. R.I.P., Steve Ditko.

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