How Doctor Strange Creator Steve Ditko Became the "J.D. Salinger" of Comics

Stan Lee and others look at the legacy of the enigmatic artist: "He was always a joy to work with, a true professional, as far as I was concerned."
Marvel/Steve Ditko
Steve Ditko's self-portrait from 'Amazing Spider-Man Annual' No. 1

The Doctor Strange media tour has been in full force for weeks, but there's one key figure you won't be hearing from: the person who created the Sorcerer Supreme.

Steve Ditko is one of the most acclaimed (and enigmatic) comic book artists of all time, best known for co-creating Spider-Man with Stan Lee in in 1962. A year later, he introduced Doctor Strange in Strange Tales No. 110, and he and Lee would go on to craft the subsequent adventures together that would inspire the film starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

While Lee remains comics' most prominent and beloved ambassador to the public, Ditko lives away from the public eye. He grants no interviews, and quietly continues working on comics with longtime editor Robin Snyder. Their creations that have political messages influenced by the likes philosopher of Ayn Rand, a longtime favorite of Ditko's.

Ditko's editor politely rebuffed our interview request, in which we noted the excitement for Doctor Strange's release.  

"Yes, we also look forward to the release of Doctor Strange," Snyder wrote, before explaining the pair were busy on their current projects — a series of indie comics they put out with the support of a Kickstart campaign. The campaign is full of charming updates thanking fans when the pair send out packages of comics to supporters. The lateset has raised a little more than $5,000. 

It's not surprising that Ditko, 89, isn't speaking out during this round of renewed interest in his work thanks to Doctor Strange. He remained quiet during the boom of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy (2002-07) as well as the recent Amazing Spider-Man pair of films (2012-14). So the Doctor Strange team knew better than trying to contact him for a blessing.

“We didn’t approach him. He’s like J.D. Salinger. He is private and has intentionally stayed out of the spotlight like J.D. Salinger," director Scott Derrickson told The Hollywood Reporter at the Los Angeles premiere of the movie last month. "I hope he goes to see the movie wherever he is, because I think we paid homage to his work."

Added screenwriter Jon Spaihts: "We read everything and delved into the images, and looked for the most iconic and mind-bending and cinematic from the Doctor Strange story. We were infused with the Ditko-aesthetic, but I never spoke to the man."

The new Doctor Strange is getting major praise for its Ditko-esque visuals, which made the character a favorite of hippies in the 60s and 70s. (Though Ditko's work was a favorite of fans who indulged in psychedelics, by all accounts, the politically conservative creator never had an interested in doing the same.) 

In the early 1960s, Lee and artist Jack Kirby were considered the architects of the Marvel Universe, with the slightly younger Ditko eventually growing in importance and becoming a legend in his own right. Lee fondly recalls his time with Ditko.

"Steve and I did short, five-page filler strips that were placed in any of our comics that had a few extra pages to fill, such as Amazing Adult Fantasy," says Lee of his earl days with the artist. "They were odd fantasy tales that I'd dream up with O. Henry-type twist endings, and Steve drew the stories realistically and beautifully."

The pair would introduce Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15 and work on the character together until 1966's Amazing Spider-Man #38, when Ditko abruptly exited the book and would leave Marvel to work for other publishers, including rival DC. He would more or less be done with mainstream comics by the 1970s, though he would pop up from time to time (he co-created Squirrel Girl for Marvel in the 1990s).

Members of the industry have said Ditko could be a challenge to work with. As Sean Howe chronicles in his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Ditko and Lee completed their final months of work together without speaking. 

But Lee recalls working with Ditko with pleasure.

"I never had any problems working with Steve, he was always a joy to work with, a true professional, as far as I was concerned," says Lee.

Despite Ditko being intensely private, comics creator Jim Starlin recalls the artist taking time to show him the ropes when he was just a kid with dreams of working in the industry.

Starlin, best known to Marvel movie goers as the creator of the villain Thanos, visited New York in the mid-60s and called up his idol, who was gracious enough to invite him to spend a few hours with him.

"He had these notebooks on his shelves that were diagrams of drapery on characters, broken down to a science, where any angle he could think of, he could find it and work a drapery in. Because he did it inking the very calligraphic kind of style," says Starlin. "Looking back he's my favorite cartoonist."

 —With reporting by Mia Galuppo

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