Steve DItko Doesn’t Stop: A Guide To 18 Secret Comics By Spider-Man’s Co-Creator
He is one of the original Marvel architects. He is a legend of American horror comics. His works directly inspired one of the most enduring products of the graphic novel era. He was present for the birth of the indie superhero comic. He was among the first generation of comic book fans to become comic book professionals. He is revered, he is despised, and he would be glanced upon askance, frequently, were he agreeable to public exhibition of himself, which he is not.
He is Steve Ditko, aged 85. He has been drawing comics for over half a century.
And in the past five years alone, he has written, drawn, lettered and co-published eighteen issues of original comic books -- over 500 pages of completely new art -- which almost nobody has read.
Let me tell you all about it.
If you thought Squirrel Girl pummeled Ditko into submission back in the '90s, just like Doctor Doom, then congratulations, you are wrong!
As a matter of fact, by the time Squirrel Girl hit the scene in 1992, Ditko had already been co-publishing his own comics in trade paperback form for years, easily predating the Image founders' breakaway from Marvel. (But then, Ditko was already a seasoned expert at ditching Marvel for greater freedoms, having introduced his first creator-owned superhero character -- the immortal Mr. A. -- in 1967, shortly before Robert Crumb's Zap Comix prompted an explosion in dedicated, adult-oriented “underground” comic books.)
Ditko currently publishes with Robin Snyder, a longtime collaborator who's edited and written for him on projects ranging from a line of Gobots children's books to a full-scale revamp of The Fly for the Red Circle Comics Group. More pertinently, though, Snyder shepherded a major Ditko passion project -- an ambitious, philosophically ultra-dense superhero graphic novel titled Static -- across three publishers before electing to take the plunge and complete the work's serialization as partner of the artist himself. The year was 1988.
Snyder was also an occasional Batman writer in the early '80s, and served as editor for Paul Pope's early books Sin Titulo and The Ballad of Doctor Richardson. And then there's The Comics!, an ongoing newsletter of first-person comics history Snyder has been publishing since 1990...
Since 2008 Snyder & Ditko have published eighteen 32-page comic books priced at $4.00 each. They are printed entirely in black and white, including the covers, and they are not carried by Diamond, the distribution company that supplies every American comic book store with the vast majority of their wares, which accounts for part of why you've likely never heard of these comics before. They can most efficiently be divided into three phases, as follows:
-  The Avenging Mind (Apr. '08)
-  Ditko, Etc... (Oct. '08)
- ...Ditko Continued... (Jan. '09)
-  Oh, No! Not Again, Ditko! (Mar. '09)
-  Ditko Once More (May '09)
-  Ditko Presents (Aug. '09)
-  A Ditko Act Two (Mar. '10)
-  A Ditko Act 3 (May '10)
-  Act 4 (July '10)
-  Ditko #5-Five Act (Nov. '10)
-  Act 6 (Jan. '11)
-  Act 7, Seven, Making 12, Twelve, of Ditko's 32s (May '11)
-  Act 8, Making Lucky 13, Thirteen Ditko's 32s (July '11)
-  A Ditko #14 (Sept. '11)
-  A Ditko #15 (Dec. '11)
-  #16: Sixteen (Feb.-Mar. '12)
-  #17: Seventeen (Nov. '12)
-  Ate Tea N: #18 (June '13)
As you can see, the series may not have initially been planned to continue for so long, prompting an eventual shift from largely unrelated titles to a whimsical, ad hoc numbering system, ultimately settling on start-to-finish numbering once the sheer extent of the endeavor became noteworthy on its own (just like with B.P.R.D.). Isn't it heartening to see an indie comics project that may have gotten bigger than expected – and from an octogenarian titan of the field!
The Avenging Mind may be a 32-page comic book, but the vast majority of its space is occupied by Ditko's prose. That's right. Steve Ditko has a reputation for being an inscrutable recluse, but the hardcore fan knows that he's published tens of thousands of words' worth of essay communiques with the outside world. (Plus, he's in the phone book.) In 2002 a number of these articles were collected into Avenging World, a 240-page codex arcana of words, drawings and comics, all dedicated to detailing the artist's deepest thoughts on art and life -- heavily informed, as you've heard, by the works of Objectivist fountainhead Ayn Rand.
Avenging World is the Ditko bible. It is not easy reading -- due in no small part to Ditko's determination to isolate, highlight, whittle down, specify his terms in a synonymous manner across strings of repetitive declarations, as if to foreclose on the possibility of ambiguity by stating every possible legitimate variation on a thought. Nevertheless, everything Ditko is “about” is contained therein.
And fundamental to Ditko's worldview is the notion that art should serve not as an idle distraction, or a mirror of its times, but as an active inspiration to the betterment of humankind.
Up above I mentioned Snyder's newsletter, The Comics! It was there, in 2007, that Ditko initially serialized “Toyland,” a lament directed at the state of superhero comics, using a Joe Quesada statement made in the wake of Civil War and House of M (“These toys are meant to be broken. If we just told stories that kept the status quo, nobody would be in this room, and I'd be out of a job. They're meant to be thrown against a wall, smashed together, and built back up again.”) as its launchpad.
“Toyland” then became the heart of The Avenging Mind, a sequel of sorts to Avenging World, but less a summary of Ditko's worldview than a 32-page preparatory sacking of the moneychangers in the temple prior to solemnizing the new gospel via subsequent issues. Stan Lee is a critical topic of discussion, as are cloudy-headed comic book readers who adopt the herd mentality in mooing support of a toxic superhero culture that approaches revamps and re-launches as cynical, destructive ventures, serving mainly to flatter (and ultimately reinforce) the worst impulses of the buying public by staining heroic figures with defeat and anti-heroism. To wit:
The turnout for Avengers Arena never fails to impress.
I wouldn't call him conciliatory, or a man of half-measures, no, but maybe it'll help if I quote from the late, great David Foster Wallace:
Fiction’s about what it is to be a f---ing human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still "are" human beings, now. Or can be.
This is almost exactly what the fiction of Steve Ditko does. It both dramatizes the difficulties of being human, and then demonstrates that you nonetheless can be human.
Or, to be exact, that you can be SUPER-human.
Having raised the Question, Ditko then set out to provide the A. -- the Answer -- in the form of brand-new comic books, chock-full of heroes.
Mr. A. is the quintessential Ditko hero. He is meant to embody the highest qualities of humankind – which, per Ditko's emphasis on individual reason and self-sufficiency, results in an unwavering dedication to making hard distinctions between good and evil, white and black, with any grey area between inevitably conductive to the continued survival of evil, and thus fundamentally irrelevant toward the correction of such. With Mr. A., you're either with him or against him, and he doesn't abuse his emotions in mourning the villains whose usage of Force and Fraud -- the twin towers of evil in Ditko's work, representing the perfect affront to personal liberty, and the ultimate frustration of reason -- demand a most permanent outlay of Responsive Force. Here he is 30 years ago:
As you might expect, Mr. A. is also on hand for two of the new comics: ...Ditko Continued... [#3] and Oh, No! Not Again, Ditko! [#4], which serialize a new short story. But something is different:
Well, several things are different. First of all, Mr. A. is no longer so violent a presence. Mostly, he just spooks this guy into defeat with his color-changing cards, representing the pollution of “the white” with “the grey,” and thus the inevitable transition to “black.”
Is this an official superpower? I don't know. It used to be that Mr. A.'s placid white face was a metal mask he'd wear to protect himself from the blows of Force, but somewhere along the line Ditko began drawing it as his actual face. As the Joker might say, why bother taking it off, if that's who he really is?
More importantly, though, the consistency of superpowers isn't all that important to Steve Ditko comics, because superheroes tend to behave less as rounded, literal figures inhabiting a virtual comic book reality than broad metaphors. In other words, when I say this stuff is supposed to be “inspiring,” as far as I know, Ditko doesn't actually want people dressing up in fancy outfits and punching crime until it stops – rather, he's using superhero stories as a means of communicating the manner in which rational individuals comport themselves. It's not kids' stuff. Always, Ditko considered the superhero genre to be a legitimate art form capable of communicating relevant themes to adult readers.
To put things into perspective: Mr. A., if we're breaking out the fandom timeline, is technically a Silver Age superhero. Perhaps he represents the end of the Silver Age. As far as I'm concerned, the only reason he doesn't is because, for too long, superhero fans gauged the entirety of history in terms set down by Marvel and DC. But you can't abide by such limitations forever, if you're meant to think for yourself.
Speaking of limitations, are all of these stories about perfect, grinning superheroes terrifying stooges into submission?
Hey, I'm not gonna sugarcoat anything – Ditko has a very specific set of interests, and every one of these comics serve those interests. Sometimes, reading them is like encountering a series of particularly odd and specific religious tracts (which I'd enjoy anyway); many pages of the Phase 2 comics are taken up by full-page drawings illustrating these favored themes in a manner akin to newspaper editorial cartoons, but charged with Ditko's particular iconography. Here, for example, is a problem:
And here is the solution:
This hero, you'll be pleased to learn, is named the Hero, and he represents many of the visual qualities Ditko presently favors: strong, clearly defined separations between black and white values (get it?) representing Reason vs. the wavy, congealing, intermingling, random lines of all that is negative in the world. The same traits were present in the Mr. A. story above, both in Mr. A.'s card and the ghostly, outline-like figure of Mr. A. himself.
I am fascinated and thrilled and delighted by this stuff. Simple as the plots may be, seeing Ditko work his way through this perfect, intuitive visual system -- panels and pages utterly without fat, where individual lines carry distinct, thematically appropriate meanings, as delicate and personal and immediate as a man signing his name, over and over -- is to witness a master advanced so far in age and skill that crowd-pleasing additions of gloss and finish have been brushed away in favor of the fastest, realist communication of his message that he can possibly manage. Even the words his characters speak rarely cohere into full sentences anymore – instead, they are self-evidently visual elements, aimed not at mimesis of realistic speech patterns (which is the one and only criterion for how "good" dialogue is composed in much of the contemporary criticism) but premised for signals for thought, motivation and action.
There is an entire cosmos in these pages. Ditko once said that he never talks about himself, because his work is him. THIS IS HIM.
Phase Three is where the series becomes mostly multi-paneled stories and begins behaving in a distinctly superhero comic book-like manner. The first issue of this phase, Ditko Presents (#6), debuts three brand-new super-characters -- two heroes and a villain -- one of which then headlines each succeeding issue, with numerous additional stories included (some of which are serialized across several issues). Each of the “main” characters' stories are period pieces, taking place in the 1930s: the decade in which comic book superheroes were born, and the roots to which Ditko now returns, in the twilight of his career.
THE MADMAN (appears in 6, 7, 10, 13, 16)
LOOK AT THAT FACE. Ditko may be all about the hero as an inspiring force, but as a citizen of this world he understands that the vast majority of people are prone to ethical lapses and small, damning compromises. More and more, his recent work focuses less on superheroes bellowing speeches into whatever space is available in the panel, than compromised human beings writhing in psychic agony over their flaws. To continue my religious comparison, to read Ditko is to know we live in a fallen world, though no god awaits these poor souls after death.
The Madman is the only “big” serial Ditko is running in his new comics: a gigantic continuing mystery story featuring modular adventures issue by issue, but potentially building toward something greater. At the center of it all is Matt Madder, a freelance thief and dedicated Individual who is accused of murder and driven insane on drugs in a psychiatric unit. Sadly for everyone, he then escapes from custody, his chemically addled brain inspiring him to dress in a frankly amazing sparkles-and-polka-dot ensemble like a blotter paper rendition of the Spirit, his only mission revenge on the people who double-crossed him: and everyone in the paranoid city of Zane is implicated!
As you can see, Madder's eccentric fashion sense reflects Ditko's visual interests: his slacks are tidy horizontal stripes, while his shirt is mad and squiggled: he is both heroic and unheroic, a victim of rationality-destroying Force and frame-up Fraud that has come back to haunt the city, exposing the ethical rot of so many.
This is another important quality of Ditko's recent work. Often, the “hero” is an overtly inhuman, purely metaphorical agent, disinterested in living in human society at all, and dedicated solely to needling the bad and empowering the good.
By way of illustration, here's the Distorter, a character from #17: Seventeen (#17):
The Distorter is the guy/gal with the power coming out of a hand in a ruffled sleeve in panel two. This is all we ever see of him/her. He/she never speaks. All that happens is that the power -- as with Kirby, crackling dots generally denote the presence of super-energy -- transforms three titans of industry into living shapes, symbolic of their status as jagged aggression, wobbly compromise, and steadfast, square-bound objectivity.
And then they fight.
A common knock against Randian folk is that they tend to favor the activities of self-serving corporations against real people, but Ditko avoids this. Indeed, a huge portion of his rogues' gallery is rapacious businessmen and nasty rich dudes who've accumulated money through ill means. Money is not really important to Ditko. By dint of his career biography, he plainly does not place blind trust in corporate actors. What is important is the Ideal, and when his heroes are close to human, they suffer for it in the uncaring world. The ol' Parker luck.
MISS EERIE (appears in 6, 8, 11, 14, 17)
The police of the 1930s did not allow women on the force. So, May Ero became a superhero.
You will not find an origin story more perfect than that, nor will you find as straight-up Golden Age a superhero design as a lady dressing up in a scary mask and beating the snot out of crime without ever losing her totally awesome hat.
Ms. Eerie is definitely my favorite of the new Ditko heroes, and only in part because a man born in 1927 is apparently more capable of devising strong female superhero characters than most writers active in the genre today. Maybe that's a sign your philosophical model is a woman. Miss Eerie is hardly alone in these comics:
Here we see luckless Ida, passed over for the big promotion in favor of mushy Brad, whose “I... I guess I am qualified!” is genuinely hilarious. This is from a two-part story in A Ditko Act 3 (#8) and Act 4 (#9).
Ah, but suddenly Ida and Brad are sucked into a vortex by the Cape, another baffling hero that targets random humans for inter-dimensional mettle-testing, possibly in retaliation for that NBC television series ruining its good name.
Whisked away to the jungles of pre-history, Ida demonstrates to Brad how a self-starting go-getter behaves herself in the wilds of finance.
Finally transported back home, Brad, observing the facts in front of him, arrives at a rational, objective valuation of how he is s****. “...if she'll have me...” sounds like a homage to Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston to me!
THE !? (appears in 6, 9, 12, 15, 18)
Speaking of communication, Ditko does enjoy a good joke, and none are better in the comics form than superhero names that frustrate any attempt at verbal communication. Try pretending this is a movie!
The !? is a gym owner in a bad part of town, at a crossroads between rival gangs. When trouble rears its head, this masked marvel takes to the rooftops, sowing confusion and exasperation (“!?”) amongst those who can't tell which side he's on -- because he has to take a side! He can't possibly be... AN INDIVIDUAL!?!?!?
Plus, there's wrasslin'.
Crusher Hogan couldn't have done it better. Also, there's a nosy journalist, which is treated in the same way as all nosy journalists are in Steve Ditko comics: with unbridled contempt (see "Ditko Vs. The Press" sidebar below!)!
It may appear just from the information presented so far that Ditko sees individual excellence as a solution to systemic inequalities of our day, like prejudice toward woman and persons of color. No, societal problems are never solved in Ditko's comics. Rather, he presents “society” itself as a construct, a false entity that contrasts with real, living, observable people. People may individually agree to participate in “society,” but to serve it or any class is to submit to collectivism, which annihilates the real, individual, living being in favor of the abstract, invented, non-living class.
Ditko exhibits enduring support of women and persons of color as equal to white men; for his generation, this is not so common. He is not Dave Sim; women are not uniquely irrational to him, they carry exactly the same potential for excellence. The converse of this, of course, is that Mr. A., as seen above, has no compunction against hurting or killing women who present a threat to life. Fundamentally, in these works there is no serious difference between the ideal function of men or women.
I will guess that most readers of this website don't agree with such politics. I don't either. But nonetheless, I feel the full and unique integration of Ditko's approach to comics -- words, images, lines, values, stories, characters, everything serving a unified purpose -- is gratifying as a superior act of communication in the comics idiom. If you cannot bear what is communicated, again -- you are far, far from alone.
"Oh god, does he hate the free press too?" you might ask. Not at all. If anything, Ditko holds the press in extremely high esteem: Mr. A. works in media, as does the Question and the Creeper. Maybe the ultimate example is Spider-Man, a photographer, recording only observable facts, eternally contrasted with J. Jonah Jameson, who twists the facts to reflect his preexisting biases and goose profits through sensationalism.
These days, admittedly, Ditko (much like everyone in my Twitter feed) generally depicts the press as biased and sensational. Too many interview requests, I'll wager. Parker would keep it fair and balanced.
A few stores carry them. JHU Comic Books (formerly Jim Hanley's Universe) and Desert Island in New York City are two of them. Sparkplug Comic Books has a few available online too, along with some other Ditko items.
Mostly, however, this is going to be your gateway. It's a frequently updated list of everything Robin Snyder has in stock, with online payment available (albeit via Canada). For anyone who wants to buy direct, the same site has Robin Snyder's address, to which you can send your money via the mail. Yes, mail! Send Robin a letter! Enclose a postal money order and your most precious thoughts!
3745 Canterbury Lane #81
Bellingham, WA 98225-1186
- If you want to get a taste of Ditko's perspective on life and art, buy The Avenging Mind, which, I caution you again, is mostly prose.
- If you want a mix of weird drawings, random comics and Mr. A., buy the four Phase Two issues detailed above.
- If you want a good sampler of the Phase Three offerings, buy these four comics: Ditko Presents (#6, the kickoff issue and introduction of the new heroes); Act 6 (#11, Miss Eerie, an especially weird, sad issue, focused on broken romance); Act 8, Making Lucky 13, Thirteen Ditko's 32s (#13, the Madman, honing in on Ditko's propensity for oddball humor and old-school, Charlton-style horror) and Ate Tea N: #18 (#18 and the !? and the newest issue, all full-length comics boasting fanboys, masks, and a truly dark, haunting finale). That'll run ya $24.00 from Snyder, with U.S. shipping. And if you up it to an even $30.00, you can place yourself on the list for the imminent 19th issue, the wonderfully-titled #9 Teen.
Because it's been 60 years, and Steve Ditko doesn't stop.