For most people, Steve Ditko will be remembered for co-creating one of Marvel Entertainment’s most iconic characters, Spider-Man. He was the artist who not only illustrated (and, increasingly, plotted) the first years of the wall-crawler’s existence, but co-created most of his iconic rogues’ gallery, including the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, the Lizard and many, many more. For anyone, that would be an impressive creative legacy, but for Ditko, whose death the comics world is reeling from, it was just the beginning.
Like his Marvel contemporary Jack Kirby, Ditko was a creative powerhouse who continued to create fascinating characters even after splitting with Marvel and Stan Lee. With Lee, he also co-created Doctor Strange and the majority of that character’s mythology and, more importantly, iconography; it’s literally impossible to separate Strange from Ditko, in the same way that the Fantastic Four remain permanently wedded to Kirby. Ditko actually jumped ship from Marvel almost five years before Kirby left, for reasons that neither he nor Stan Lee ever fully explained, but have been assumed to be related to creative freedom and differences in approach between the two men in charge of Spider-Man’s story.
What this meant was that one of the two men behind one of Marvel’s biggest hits, still on a creative and commercial peak, was suddenly on the market at a time when superheroes were big business — something that made Ditko attractive to Marvel’s competitors, who were generally willing to let him follow his muse no matter where it was going. The result was a number of comic creations that, while not as famous as Peter Parker or Stephen Strange, were just as individual, just as fascinating, and just as full of possibility.
For Charlton Comics, Ditko created Blue Beetle — another insect-themed character, who in many ways mirrored a more straight-laced, less neurotic Spider-Man — as well as the Question and Captain Atom, all three characters who were literally ahead of their time; all three would become successful under different writers and artists when revived for critically-acclaimed runs at DC, while simultaneously inspiring Nite Owl, Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. For DC itself, he created a panoply of newcomers, from Hawk and Dove — two ideologically-opposed brothers granted powers by a mysterious mystical force who had to work together to save the day — to Shade the Changing Man, a former secret agent whose M-Vest allowed him to reshape reality itself even as the political landscape around him shifted in an ever-more-paranoid series. Other DC creations included the Creeper, a reporter whose secret identity allowed him to fight injustice and untruth in a far more direct manner than simply writing.
Even as Ditko receded into quasi-retirement — he never fully retired; as recently as 2016, he was still producing work that was, for all intents and purposes, self-published with editor and friend Robin Snyder — he continued to freelance and create new characters. Ditko returned to Marvel to co-create Speedball and Squirrel Girl, the latter now one of the company’s biggest successes outside of the fanboy-centric direct market. At other publishers, he came up with Missing Man, the Mocker, Static and, reflecting his own political views, the objectivist Mr. A.
The one throughline that all these characters had, in addition to Ditko’s trademark aesthetic that focused on eyes and hands to an almost fetishistic degree at times, was that all of them were…strange. (No pun intended.) Ditko’s characters were always a little outside of the mainstream, a celebration of the individual and the outsider even at a time when such things were rare and superheroes traditionally aspired to be agents of the status quo. His creations, even those theoretically intended to be family-friendly like Speedball and Squirrel Girl, were always just a little creepy and weird...which is the very thing that made them memorable, and even lovable.
Throughout the decades Ditko worked and introduced new ideas and new characters into the world, he defied trends and followed his own off-kilter muse; he was an auteur at a time when few existed in comics, and everyone and everything he worked on demonstrated that. He was a creator ahead of his time in terms of ideas — even Squirrel Girl took two decades from creation to become a success, an oddly similar gap to that between the debut and commercial peak of his Charlton characters — but also in terms of attitude.
Without meaning to (because his interest was always merely to do his own thing; he was an objectivist, after all), Ditko demonstrated the value of following your own creative impulse years before Image Comics or the landscape surrounding it existed; without knowing it, he pointed to the future. The comics universe is a lesser place without him.