Sunday, 16 September 2007

The Objectivist Who Created Spider-Man

by Charles Pooter

Cover of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (1964). Art by Steve Ditko.

Jonathan Ross in Search of Steve Ditko on BBC 4 tonight at 9 PM could be worth watching. Steve Ditko, whose dynamic and detailed artwork brought a new level of quality to American comic books, created the iconic Spider-Man character. The credit for this is normally given to Stan Lee and with Lee ever the self-promoter and Ditko a recluse, this perception remains.

Ditko ultimately left Marvel Comics after continuing artistic differences with Lee and others. One story has it that the final spat was over the identity of arch-criminal the Green Goblin. Ditko had become greatly convinced by the objectivist philosophy of Russian émigré novelist Ayn Rand (who incidentally would probably have approved of his vocation, believing that pulp fiction was one of the last retreats for romantic heroic ideals). Ditko liked his stories to be black and white tales of good vs evil. He was insistent that when the Goblin's identity be revealed he should be shown to be a nobody. To Ditko, criminals were always nobodies and losers and there should be no contradictions in fiction lending crime a glamour or mystique. Stan Lee wanted the Goblin's identity to be that of industrialist Norman Osborn, father of Spider-Man/Peter Parker's friend Harry. To the Randite Ditko this was anathema: businessmen should be depicted as heroic pillars of society like Atlas Shrugged's Hand Rearden and John Galt, not as criminals. As anyone will know who has seen the 2002 Spider-Man movie, starring Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn, Stan Lee won the argument.

After leaving Marvel, Ditko joined Charlton Comics, creating and revamping many characters including my favourites: the clearly Rand-influenced The Question and the Blue Beetle. You will be able to see these two characters pastiched as Rorschach and Night Owl in the upcoming movie Watchmen, based on the excellent comic of the same same by Alan Moore.

After Charlton, Ditko did some work for a few other big companies including DC Comics, but mostly focused on small press work (often published by his friend and former editor Robin Snyder). This work often had uncompromisingly objectivist themes, the best example of which is probably Mr A (whose name comes from "A is A", the Law of Identity as expressed by Ayn Rand).

Further information about Ditko is hard to come by, as he is a recluse who refuses to give interviews. Some years ago it was reported that he had fallen on hard times and was living in a YMCA hostel in New York. Maybe Jonathan Ross has succeeded where others have failed and persuaded the objectivist who created Spider-Man to give him an interview.

The Question: One of Steve Ditko's uncompromising objectivist super-heroes.


Eamon McGrane said...

I think it's fair to say that Spider-man was a co creation. Lee came up with the idea for Spider-man, his powers, name, personality and supporting cast. The way he spoke, interacted with people, his problems and so on. Ditko was the grand architect of that. Ditko did not create spider-man but was a crucial part of his creation and success.

Charles Pooter said...

Yes, Lee had input, but without Ditko, Spider-Man as we know him, would not exist. For many years Lee got all the credit in the minds of many.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Spider-Man is a direct ripoff (in powers and abilities) of the earlier character The Fly created by Joe Simon in the 1950s and published by Archie Comics. Stan Lee's contribution to Marvel Comics is the personality each character has and the addition of soap opera elements. The actual plots of Spider-Man stories, and in fact pretty much any stories written in the "Marvel Method," were by Steve Ditko, just as the Fantastic Four and Thor were 95% plotted by Jack Kirby. Stan did the dialogue and some editing when necessary.