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Nov
11
2018

On the Influence of Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko, the cartoonist best known popularly for his role in the creation of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange for Marvel Comics, died last June at the age of ninety.  His death occasioned obituaries in several high-profile publications such as this one in the New York Times, which among other things reflects on Ditko’s historical importance and creative legacy. A large part of any artist’s legacy is their effect on the art and artists that follow them–their influence–and indeed the headline from that NY Times obituary refers to Ditko as the, “Influential Comic Book Artist.”

But here’s a curious thing: the word “influence” or “influential” appear five times in that article, but in every instance other than its use as a general accolade in the headline, they all refer to people who Ditko was influenced by–Ayn Rand, Mort Meskin–not anyone being influenced by Ditko.

Compare this, for example, to the NY Times obituary of Ditko’s contemporary, Jack Kirby, who died in 1994. In just the first few paragraphs there are specific mentions of things Kirby influenced–how superhero comics post-Kirby are different than superhero comics pre-Kirby. Indeed, Kirby’s aesthetic influence on superhero comics is as ubiquitous as it is self-evident. Grab any modern superhero comic off the rack at your local comics shop and you’re looking at something that’s been shaped by Kirby’s influence. 

A casual flip through a few issues of a contemporary superhero comic, though, is unlikely to yield any sign of Ditko’s visual style. Why is this? I think, because despite the tremendous regard in which Ditko is held by most comics people (myself included) his stylistic influence–such as it is–falls outside the genre in which Ditko’s best-known work falls. If you want to see Steve Ditko’s stylistic influence on comics you need to look not at superhero comics, but at indie comics–specifically indie comics of the late 1990s. 

Of all the articles written about Ditko on the occasion of his death, only one that I read (and I read a ton of them!) addresses this: Jeet Heer’s article in The New Republic.  

As an artist, his lasting influence was among cartoonists working in the tradition of alternative comics and graphic novels: Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Ben Katchor, Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes.

You will certainly find plenty of Ditko homages in superhero comics–a “Ditkoesque” Dr. Strange background, a new Spider-Man costume design that calls back to Ditko’s original–but Ditko’s aesthetic sense will be largely absent. Some of that is based on history: Marvel’s early “house style” was basically a reflection of Marvel’s policy of having every artist draw as much like Kirby as possible… except for Ditko. Ditko was allowed to be Ditko, and no one was told to emulate Ditko’s style.

A lot of it, though, is that Ditko’s style is just too weird 1. His “heroic” figures are gangly and stiff and even the most mundane sequences in his stories have an air of surreality about them.  It’s a wonder he was as successful a superhero artist as he was. It’s not surprising that following generations of superhero artists weren’t looking to Ditko for their stylistic vocabulary 2. But it’s equally unsurprising that the artists who drove the 1990’s “alternative comics” movement–people like Charles Burns, Dan Clowes, and  Gilbert Hernandez–were doing exactly that; Ditko was the “alternative” cartoonist of early Marvel. 

Ditko takes heat for supposedly not being able to draw “pretty girls,” but in fact most of his characters–men and women alike–are weird-looking. Any closely-examined Ditko crowd scene is a grotesquery. You can see Ditko’s bizarre character design showing through in early Clowes in particular. 

 

And Ditko’s general world of men in stiff suits, Ronsir Zyl glasses, and porkpie hats (a look already well out of date by the time Ditko first started at Marvel) is right at home in the “Manly World of LLoyd Llewellyn.” 

Ditko’s earlier horror work is, well… horrific, and a pretty obvious influence on Charles Burns–not only Ditko’s drawing style, but his particular vision of horror juxtaposed with a placid, bland Americana aesthetic, something Burns would riff on explicitly in works like Big Baby.

 

I’d even speculate Dan Clowes’s particularly distinctive way of drawing hands is influenced by Ditko’s well-known and distinctive style of posing his characters’ hands.

I’m citing Clowes and Burns because I know their work the best, but I’m sure a Love and Rockets fan could give you some solid examples from the work of the Hernandez Brothers as well–particularly Gilbert. 

I’ve often wondered if Ditko was even aware of 90s alternative comics and his influence on them. Fans of Ditko’s superhero work were notorious for tracking him down at his New York studio and bugging him (Ditko’s desire not to be constantly badgered by fanboys apparently making him an “eccentric loner”) but I doubt Charles Burns ever banged on his door.  Most influential artists working in the superhero genre are influential largely within that genre. I can’t think of another example like Ditko–an artist whose work in that genre proved so influential in another genre that’s not just outside it, but in some ways a reaction against it. 

But, you don’t have to take my word for it! In closing, here’s a great, rejected Dan Clowes two-page appreciation of Ditko that surfaced shortly after Ditko’s death. And, hey, it looks like Clowes did track Ditko down and bug him. 


1. Kirby would eventually develop a fairly idiosyncratic style as well–to the point that DC had other artists redraw some of his characters to make them less Kirby-esque–but this was later in is career. 

2. The one big exception that comes to mind here is Michel Fife; however he’s an odd case of a superhero artist who operates largely outside of the “Big Two” publishers–and it’s telling that what work he has done for mainstream superhero comics publishers has been largely writing rather than drawing. 

8 comments

1 ping

  1. Michael Rhode says:

    I would also argue that some 1970s Marvel works were influenced by Ditko, specifically Jim Starlin’s Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock, and possibly writers like Steve Gerber, but that strain is largely been bred out of Marvel now.

  2. Matt Seneca says:

    Todd mcfarlane was always pretty up front about his Ditko influence. I think a reflection of the grotesquerie seen in Ditko is noticeable in the work of that guys school of followers- Greg Capullo, etc. Good article!

  3. BK Munn says:

    Great article. I think if we look closely, both Jaime and Gilbert have tons of Ditko references and infuences in their work and have talked in interviews about taking style cues from Ditko menswear designs specifically. There is a whole page in Jaime’s “Bob Richardson” story that is a panel-by-panel homage to Ditko’s Spider-Man buried under a pile of machinery story, discussed here:
    http://comicscomicsmag.com/?p=529

  4. Ben says:

    @michael – Writers influenced by Ditko is a whole other kettle of fish–and one I probably don’t have the background to really evaluate. I can definitely see maybe the cosmic aspects of Starlin’s work pulling from Dr. Strange, though.

  5. Ben says:

    @Matt – Thanks for commenting–and I’m a big fan of your comics writing btw! I really hadn’t considered McFarlane, mainly just because I’m not very familiar with Image/90’s stuff. I just kinda missed out on that part of comics at the time. But now that you mention it, yeah, that makes some sense for sure.

  6. Ben says:

    @BK – Ah, thanks for chiming in with some Hernandez Brothers info. As mentioned in the article, I’m not sufficiently versed in their work to really do much of a Ditko comparison. Glad someone stepped up to the plate. That article you linked to is by Jeet Heer, who wrote the Ditko obit I cite in my article–so he’s definitely on it when it comes to the Ditko/90’s alt comics thing.

  7. BK Munn says:

    Ben, Jeet knows his stuff, for sure. In one respect though, his brother is the Ditko expert in the family, maintaining a Ditko blog for a decade or so: http://ditko.blogspot.com

    As for Clowes, the entirety of his The Death Ray is a very Ditko-esque extended reflection on Spider-Man, and his recent Patience is sort of a Mr. A meets sci-fi epic with many Dr. Strange-like trippy visuals.

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