Tuesday, July 29, 2008


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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Matt Tauber said...


Jonathan Nolan said...

If the worst Stan Lee was, was to act as a catalyst for the team effort which truly produced all the Marvel classics- he deserves high praise for that alone.

Also a lot of his published nonfiction was done when he was still the sole remaining original creator working for Marvel under work-for-hire- he could have sacrificed himself on the altar of nobility but all that would have meant was that no one would have received any credit at all.

As for the artist's preeminence over the ideas man or writer- it's a silly distinction. The team made each book. Stan Lee being a glory hog hasn't particularly confused anyone and no sane person of above moron intelligence trusts anything the media says. On that though, even the media now refer to Lee as the co-creator.

If Lee was negligible to the creation process for Ditko, I always wondered why Ditko's other efforts for eg Charleston and DC stank on ice... Turns out Lee as writer and editor added something that few of these old school artists in the Lee Wars pay much attention to- artistic boundaries. Commercial art can't just be art, it needs to be -commercial- ... absent Lee's :angle man: pragmatism and marketing genius Marvel would have tanked and Kirby would have no Kingship, Ditko no mystique, and Spider-Man no franchise.

Although the way the Quesada-Bendis axis is going, the published as opposed to film end of the franchise is in danger anyway.

Matt Tauber said...

Stan Lee does indeed deserve high praise. It was not my intention, nor Ditko’s, I think, to diminish his contributions. Lee is the chief architect of Marvel’s success and growth in the 1960s, responsible for much of what readers cherish today about comics. It’s Ditko’s intention that Lee cease to diminish the contributions of the artists.

It’s not a silly to make a distinction between the contributions of the writer and artist, especially when discussing the Marvel method. Lee did not have scripts that were drawn, he had plot ideas that were turned into fully realized stories by the artist, with the artist making significant choices. You’re right when you say, “(t)he team made each book.” This is precisely the argument against Lee’s assertion as sole creator.

What’s silly is your world of absolutes where no sane person believes anything the media says. The media shades, obfuscates and lies, but not about everything all of the time. A majority of the people, who are sane and not morons, not only believe things from the media, but they repeat them. If a radio reporter announces on the air that the Yankees beat the Royals 5-1, they will be believed by a sane, intelligent populace. It is the insane moron who will say, ‘The media reported a Yankee victory, but what are they hiding? What is their agenda? Why are they discriminating against the Royals?’. Also, if no news source is to be trusted, why even make your point that the media “refer to Lee as the co-creator.” I’m sure some do, but if you Google “Stan Lee” and “creator of Spider-Man” you’ll find plenty of current hits, including profiles in Forbes, the Independent (London) and the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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ironjam said...

I started collecting comics when I was 9 years old, back in 1979. I absolutely hated anything Ditko drew(this includes some work for Marvel(e.x. Machine Man). But, later on, when I was exposed to his earlier Spider-man run, I was amazed. Curvy, expressive lines matched with a dynamic grasp of anatomy and how folks looked. What I think is the case is that Kirby and Ditko didn't translate as well into the new comic age(ala 1980, as one poster suggested with Ditko's run on charlston & DC), where stories weren't almost mindless slug fests, interspersed with seemingly innocuous(at the time) sexism and blatantly corny dialogue. The comic audience had grown up a little, at that point, and when your stuff doesn't look like John Byrne or Frank Frazetta, you are going to seem a little dated. Lee definitely had an invaluable influence on those early works, but his "play on words" when it came to credit shows a shrewd and calculating businessman. I think he may have some issues to answer for in the next life. (Not to say those Golden Age stories don't have merit, they are wonderful. But I would gouge my eyes out if all comics were produced that way today. Although with all the cookie cutter comics coming out today a little Golden Age excitement might be welcome).
Also,in case it seems I am 'hating' on Kirby/Ditko, I would point out that short-lived but well-loved (by me) series called Speedball in the 90's by the man Ditko himself. It was the closest he has ever come to his Spidey days, and he was a GREAT fit for it. Also, there is no greater pleasure than buying an old comic, tearing open the package, and witnessing a glorious Kirby cover. Geniuses both.

horde zla said...

let me tell something to all of you, stan lee is master mind of comics and ditko is just average artist. and lee said- who come up with the idea , thats right stan lee is mind and soul of spiderman and ditko just put clothes on him. thats how it is plain and simple and lee gave the name spiderman so be sure without stan wouldnt be wallcravler he rejected kirby drawing on it didnt he so. in my opinion ditko is stupid to be angry to this day cause lee is writer and he is artist and lee beat him didnt he look what he achived,so in term of comics i will say NO ONE WILL EVER BE LIKE STAN LEE.

Tim Smyth said...

Well I would disagree on who is the heart and soul of Spider-Man, as Ditko plotted most of the best issues. Yes, Stan did write better dialog than either Ditko or Kirby, but those two artists in particular really did a lot of the writing chores on their comics. Jack Kirby has said in interviews that Stan did not come up with the name Spiderman, that was Joe Simon in the fifties, and Kirby handed that over to Stan, although right before going to press Stan did notice that the name looked to similar to Superman, and decided to add the hyphen, making it Spider-Man.
Stan's real genius aside from his witty dialog, was branding Marvel, making its fans loyal and feeling like they were friends instead of just consumers.

Harvey Kurtz Jr. said...

Ditko was a copyrighted character owned by Marvel Comics, but it never got to print 'cause Marvel developed Spider-Man. Nowadays and after Marvel's bankruptcy some years ago, he may have a different owner.

James Palladino said...

I'm not looking to add fuel to the fire here. I believe that all of them are great.. kirby and Ditko were both great artists and Stan was a talented writer. That being said I believe that Stan Lee was a visionary, he saw the possibility of branding and marketing Marvel and its characters just like Disney and warner brothers. So I suppose that to achieve proper branding Stan reasoned that one person, himself, would have to coordinate the efforts, create to continuity not only within each title but between the titles, which up until that point really didnt exist and to really talk to the readership and get them vested in the books as well as the brand.. Stan did all that.. No one can argue that.. that was a huge piece of brilliance on his part and the reason that Marvel is the house hold name it currently is. But all that to the side and back to the issue of creator vs cocreator, well these are my thoughts, a writer of a book lets say a fictional novel for example, creates the characters of his book and then the story and events that take place... if this book is them turned into a movie the actors and the directors and costume designers and camera men and special effects people all interpert the story from the written book to bring that story into a visual medium. The work and effort to create that movie takes a lot of talent and creativity and is deserving of credit for creating the movie, however the idea, the characters and their personality and interaction and story plot all belong to the author of the book. So Stan Lee created Spiderman, he came up with the concept the story the personality the characters etc.. Steve Ditko interpreted the story into the visual medium of pictures and thereby created the comicbook itself.. This is why the are considered co creators (but its really co creators of the spiderman book) not of spiderman himself.. that is Stan Lees creation.

Matt Tauber said...

James, I think in essence you are saying that Ditko produced a derivative work of Lee's Spider-Man, much like a movie would be derivative of the novel it's based on. I disagree. Ditko, et al were not adapting Lee short stories into comic book form. They weren't even usually working from scripts, but generally from a synopsis. Comics combine words and pictures to tell a story. Ditko was as much the storyteller as Lee, if not more so in the case of working from short synopses where Lee figured out point A and point B and the artist had all to do in-between.

I didn't mean to short change Lee, only to document his dilution of the artist contribution to the Marvel universe in a book published during a heyday of popularity when he had a plenty of hindsight on the stories therein.