STEVE DITKO, the comics legend best known for co-creating Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man and Doctor Strange characters more than a half-century ago, died late last month in his Manhattan apartment, the New York Police Department confirmed Friday.
No cause of death was given for Ditko, 90, but he had long maintained an extremely private life. Sometimes referred to as “the J.D. Salinger of comics,” Ditko declined public appearances and almost all interview requests.
Yet one literary colleague who spoke with Ditko in the Marvel artist’s later years was Neil Gaiman, the best-selling author widely known for such works as “American Gods,” “Coraline,” “The Graveyard Book” and the DC/Vertigo comics epic “The Sandman.”
Reached in the United Kingdom shortly after Ditko’s death came to light Friday, Gaiman spoke with The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs about what Ditko meant to comics — and about what made Ditko so fascinating in person and on the page.
“I just find myself thinking with enormous pleasure about the afternoon [British TV/radio host] Jonathan Ross and I went up to Steve Ditko’s office in New York in 2007,” Gaiman told The Post about the uncommon interaction. “We just walked up, knocked on the door, and he came out and chatted in the corridor for 25 minutes. He answered all of Jonathan’s questions and went in and got us a bunch of comics.”
“I just remember him as so very, very gracious and at the same time so very private,” continued Gaiman, who has called it “one of the best days” of his life. “Jonathan asked if he could have his photo taken with Steve. [Ditko] simply said, ‘No.’ ”
Public photographs of Ditko were many decades old. Gaiman made note of Ditko’s relatively youthful appearance: “He looked much like the drawings of Steve Ditko in his 40s — as he did [during] Spider-Man.”
Growing up in Britain in the ’60s, Gaiman was first mesmerized by Ditko’s art, including the early Spider-Man and Doctor Strange books co-created by Marvel editor Stan Lee in 1962 and 1963. “The Doctor Strange stuff was brain-bending,” Gaiman said of Ditko’s genius. “It was glorious … and it was pure Steve. What Steve brought was grandeur and a view to other dimensions.”
Ditko was also responsible for the look of Spider-Man — including costume colors and the web-shooters of one of the world’s most popular superheroes ever — and he helped create many of the webslinger’s most iconic villains.
In the ’90s, Ditko would return to Marvel, co-creating the character Squirrel Girl.
Gaiman relished Ditko’s non-Marvel work, as well, including his horror and sci-fi titles for Charlton Press (including “Tales of the Mysterious Traveler”) and his contributions to DC Comics, where Ditko conceived such characters as Hawk and Dove, the Creeper, and Shade, the Changing Man.
“I was just fascinated by [his] vision that seemed always much more mundane, much more real and much more concerned with moral choices than anything else in comics,” said Gaiman, noting the morality dynamic over using military force that sat at the center of “Hawk and Dove.”
Stephen J. Ditko, who was born in Johnstown, Pa., on Nov. 2, 1927, had served in the Army in postwar Germany — drawing for a military paper before studying under virtuosic Batman-studio artist Jerry Robinson.
From early on, Ditko’s characters were almost magnetically pulled toward the offbeat. From Shade to the Question to Captain Atom, there was “something gloriously weird about all of them. But also somehow mundane,” said Gaiman, drawing comparisons between Ditko and Marvel’s other superstar artist in the early ’60s, Jack Kirby.
“Kirby was all about power and action — I always felt that Ditko was all about restraint, but also about vision. … So when he drew things like Mr. A, he would write these strange, powerful essays [that] were these kind of essays about objectivism, about ethics, about who owns what, about the relationships between corporations and people,” Gaiman said of Ditko, an Ayn Rand devotee who became less of a fan favorite at midcareer, well after he had a falling-out with Lee and departed Marvel in the mid-60s.
“Without Kirby, there would be no Marvel [and] and no Marvel films,” Gaiman said of the multibillion-dollar cinematic universe. “Without Steve Ditko, there would have been none of the weird stuff off to the side. And the thing that made Marvel was that glorious combination of the Ditko and the Kirby.
“He drew things his own way. And he saw things his own way. I think we were so lucky to have him.”