Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko
Written by: Blake Bell
I don’t recall the first time that I saw Steve Ditko’s art but I know I didn’t like it. Of course, I was probably only about 10 or 11 years old at the time and my taste in comic book art had yet to be refined. As I went from fan to collector, and started picking up back issues of Strange Tales with Ditko art on Doctor Strange, my appreciation soon grew. Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is an illustrated biography of the reclusive artist that showcases many rare pieces of Ditko art, some of it being published for the first time in decades. I can’t help but wonder how much, if at all, Ditko was involved in the book. As you’ll read, the man is fairly obsessive when it comes to his work to the point of being compulsive.
Ditko is one of the most enigmatic, mercurial talents in comic history. An inscrutable perfectionist, Ditko was like the Greta Garbo of comics. On one hand he was highly principled and took a strong stand on how his characters were portrayed. On the other hand, Ditko can also be considered stubborn to the point of being self-destructive. It was ultimately his refusal to compromise that led him to leave Spider-Man and Marvel in the ‘60s and withdraw to his own insulated world, allowing few outsiders to break his inner circle.
The book traces Ditko’s climb through the comic industry, getting his first job in 1953 on the long-forgotten Fantastic Fears from Stanmor Publications. Like so many comic artists in the ‘50s, Ditko worked wherever and whenever he could. He first made a name for himself at Charlton. Charlton was one of the lowest paying publishers but they DID pay and could offer Ditko as much work as he could handle. It is in his Charlton years that we see Ditko heavily influenced by the EC Comics horror titles of the early 50s. Ditko did horror stories that were every bit as gorgeous as those that were published by EC and the book is filled with many fantastic pieces of his art from this period.
Ditko would move onto Marvel after the instatement of the Comics Code sounded the death knell for horror comics. Ditko worked on many of those pre-superhero mystery and Sci-fi comics such as Strange Tales of the Unusual, Mystery Tales, Journey into Mystery, Astonishing…the titles didn’t matter much, they were essentially all the same with similar stories of aliens or monsters, tame enough not to upset the “Authority”. These stories featured characters that would become prototypes for Doctor Strange and Spider-Man.
Much of the book covers Ditko’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange era and his increasingly difficult relationship with Stan Lee. Ditko was a devotee of the novelist, Ayn Rand and followed her philosophies on objectivism and her staunch beliefs in individualism. These ideas eventually crept into his work more and more, eventually leading to rifts with Stan Lee and his eventual departure from Marvel. As great as his Spider-Man work is, I think Ditko’s best work was on Doctor Strange. Without the confines of Spider-Man’s urban setting, Ditko is able to let his imagination run wild on Doctor Strange, delivering a psychedelic mythos that had not been seen in comics up until that point.
Blake Bell does a magnificent job of showing all sides of Ditko. It’s certainly not a praise or tribute book. Bell clearly notes that Ditko’s unwillingness to change with the times kept him from getting work later in life. The art selection includes everything from his earliest amateur work to his latest work and everything in between including rare pieces he did for fanzines. This is a great book spotlighting one of comics’ most misunderstood talents.