Steve Ditko has died at a grand old age. For years he lived as a recluse, troubled by mental illness and nurturing hard right political convictions that I'm happy to know as little about as possible.
But in his day, he was a genuine marvel. The Marvel Method of making comics involved a tight collaboration between writer and artist, that saw both thrash out a plot, before the artist produced all the panels, leaving space for the writer to add the dialogue and captions. Fundamentally, then, it was a visual medium.
Ditko's work on Spider-Man is my favourite ever comic art. There's a kinetic energy to his figures. They look sprung--they ping you from panel to panel. Where his colleague and rival, Jack Kirby, produced extraordinary, statuesque figures who battled threats to the whole cosmos, Ditko created gawky imperfect figures who battled evil only after they had done the grocery shopping.
There's real wit in those early days, which--to give Stan Lee his due--is matched by the droll dialogue. Spider-Man is the unconstrained, extrovert release for the shy teenager Peter Parker, who is otherwise bedevilled by personal anxieties and by a sense of an unpayable debt owed to the elderly aunt who brought him up. That central tension was exploited brilliantly over the course of Ditko's time on the comic, reaching its peak with the ‘If This Be My Destiny’ story arc. Look it up.
He did other brilliant things, too. His all-too-brief stint on Dr Strange created the Daliesque weirdness that the tame Benedict Cumberbatch flick of 2016 failed to capture. In the 60s, many in the counterculture saw a hippy mysticism in this book that made Ditko seem one of their own. Sadly, they couldn't have been more wrong. Over the next decades, he retreated into a world of paranoia and Ayn-Rand-inspired Objectivism that is best ignored.
But today, I'm happy to celebrate Steve Ditko as one of the great storytellers of the 20th century. Neil Gaiman has already paid tribute to him this morning. Glen David Gold acknowledged his debt at the back of his 2001 novel Carter Beats the Devil. Michael Chabon was clearly influenced by Ditko when writing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
And he’s somewhere in The Continuity Girl, too, because the lessons you learn from the stories you read earliest are lessons you learn for life. In some way, my protagonists are always going to be struggling to throw off a gigantic piece of machinery, so that they can thwart the evil plans of Dr Octopus and make sure that Aunt May gets the medicine she so desperately needs…