35 years after Spider-Man's debut, the normally silent Steve Ditko speaks up
I’ve just finished reading ‘The Avenging Mind’ by Steve Ditko. It’s a prose piece printed in a comic book format, released on a limited basis from Robin Snyder. I bought mine Jim Hanley's Universe in New York City, the only retail outlet for the book of which I’m aware. Ditko is an artist almost as legendary for his reclusiveness as he is for his co-creation, Spider-Man. It’s this “co-creation” that is the basis for his essays in ‘Avenging Mind’. Stan Lee, the gregarious guru of Marvel Comics, is generally credited by the press and by himself as 'the creator of Spider-Man', as well as other Marvel characters like the X-Men, Hulk and Fantastic Four. Lee, a writer, relied on artists to bring his ideas and stories to life. Without the artist, as Ditko rightly argues, Lee’s creations are written story ideas or brief plot synopses…not comic book creations. That’s not to say that Lee has never mentioned or lauded these artists and their contributions, he has certainly done so. But his comments, well-documented by Ditko, clearly see the artist as contributors to Lee’s ideas, not as partners in creative endeavor.
It was with this mindset that I recently perused Origins of Marvel Comics, a 1974 paperback that reprints the first adventures of Marvel’s best-known superheroes. I don’t own a copy, but I borrowed one from the library. I only mention that because when I was a kid they stopped letting patrons check out because their copies were being stolen. You had to request it as reference at the main library downtown and read it there, making it something of a grail of youth.
The only author credit on ‘Origins’ is “by Stan Lee”. Lee also writes a preface for each comic story therein, giving the back story of the creation. In these essays, Lee mentions the artist for each story, true comic giants that include Ditko, Jack Kirby and John Romita, Sr. These artists are given high praise for their art, but it is clear that Lee considered them at times to be interchangeable conduits for his own muse.
Spider-Man is the most famous of the Marvel super heroes, and the character most associated with Lee. Lee recounts his creation of the Spider-Man idea and the selection of an artist for the comic. At first he selected Jack Kirby, who drew up some sample pages. Lee decided that Kirby’s bombastic style was wrong for the character. Looking for a more realistic quality, he turned to Ditko. “I asked Steve to draw Spider-Man,” Lee relates. “And he did.” Then Lee goes on for three more pages about how innovative the ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ comic has been, but no more mention of sturdy Steve. Again, to briefly explain the “Marvel method”, Lee would write a brief plot synopsis or outline, the artist would draw the entire story, even making dialogue or plot suggestions in the margins of the art board, return the art to Lee, who would then discern what was going on in the story and write the dialogue.
The most egregious credit grab is that of Dr. Strange. Ditko claims sole credit for the character and Lee himself admitted as much early on. In the retelling, however, Lee states that he “penned the words” while Ditko “took up the art chores”. Again, both statements are true, but mislead the reader into thinking it was a co-creation.
Jack Kirby is perhaps Lee’s most famous collaborator, almost universally credited as co-creator of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men and a horde of others. Of the FF, Lee wrote, “I would create a team…such as comicdom had never known.” Kirby, Lee wrote, was chosen to draw, part of his skill being “breaking down the outline into exactly the right number of panels”…WHAT? Replace that with ‘drawing an entire 22-page story based on a plot idea’ and you have something closer to the truth. Of the Hulk, Lee wrote that “I decided that Jack Kirby would be the artist to breathe life into our latest creation.” But from the context of the essay, the “our” he’s referring to is Marvel, and not Lee/Kirby. Lee also notes that Kirby had a whole new group of fans following “his interpretation of the Fantastic Four”. It is here in ‘Avenging Mind’ that Ditko would reference the dictionary, define the word ‘interpretation’ for the reader, and then argue that while Lee’s attitudinal style is cavalier, his word choice is calculated. I have to agree. The credits were written in the comics in such a way as to convey an atmosphere of frivolity. Lee used nicknames like "Jolly Jack", joked about their contributions and even made up the fake Irving Forbush to give credit to. The only thing, it seems, that wasn't frivolous was always putting his own name first. This is not to totally denigrate Lee, who's comics' work of the 1960s I've always treasured. I met him briefly at a book signing a couple of years ago. He must have signed autographs for four hours, which in your early '80s is no small feat. He's very likable, almost as likable as the fake Stan Lee. But I digress.
I must note that Dikto doesn't dismantle Lee's insidious jargon for personal gain. He desires no fame, in fact he has consistently has made it known that he wants to be left alone and has no obligation to his fans. He's not looking for a piece of the multi-million dollar Spider-Man pie, as he has no legal claim to the character and does not assert one. Ditko's aim is the truth and correction of the obfuscations of the eternally affable Stan Lee, who, for the public at large, is the human face of Marvel Comics and even the comics industry.
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