It's not paranoia to say that the winners get to write history. Or that they get to control the narrative of what comes later. This might sound obvious, but time and time again, it's a hard lesson to learn and a bitter pill to swallow. Let's begin.
Growing up (in the 70's and 80's), I loved cartoons and comic books. I watched anything with a superhero I could find. I still do this, and will usually watch trash if it's related to a comic book (NOTE: I have never seen Ghost Rider 1 or 2, Catwoman or Jonah Hex). As a kid, all I cared about were the characters. I didn't know who Siegel and Shuster were. Didn't really know who Kane was.
But I knew who Stan Lee was.
Stan was the voice behind the Marvel Cartoons of the 80's, introducing the stories and characters and generally taking on the roll that he has in the Marvel Cinematic Universe now; friendly bystander spouting off a line or two about what is going on. This is not an accident. Stan carefully curated an image of himself that was synonymous with Marvel Comics; Stan was and will always be Marvel Comics. The two are one in the same. Even if Disney now owns Marvel, you think of Stan before Mickey Mouse. In fact, Stan is Walt Disney. I can't think of any publisher, director, actor...that embodies a whole entity with his voice and face the way Stan does...maybe Adam West/Batman.
As I got older, I started to recognize the talent behind the comics. I always like to say this, but...as I just started buying comics around 9 or 10, I memorized my favorite creative team: Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin, Tom Orzechowski, Glynis Oliver. Also known as the creative team of the Uncanny X-Men. I don't think I knew any other creative team as well as I did this one; when Byrne left and Cockrum came back in, I memorized his name. Same goes for Paul Smith, John Romita, Jr., Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri and so on. I don't think I registered that Stan had a hand in creating the X-men until much later, and I definitely didn't know about Jack Kirby's hand (and pencil) until later than that.
Which brings me to Steve Ditko. I was probably in my 20's when I started to really get a handle on comics and comics history. I started working at comic stores at 18, so access was a big deal. If you can't find it, you can't read it. So, thanks to the Comics Crypt (where I worked) and Phantom of the Attic (which was down the block), I started to really immerse myself in comics and their creators. Ditko was an enigma to me (to all of us, really). When I really started to understand who he was and what he had done, Ron Hill at Jim Hanley's Universe (now JHU Comics) handed me a copy of Mr. A and told me to read it (still own it, btw). I didn't quite get it. It was incredibly...pardon me for saying...black and white. There was no nuance. No gray. No fun. I didn't quite get the idea of his Randian beliefs, so I passed it off as, "Wow, this guy is a bit angry, huh?" And that when I started to discover his self-published work.
I thought he was crazy.
I dare say that everyone I talked to about him thought he was crazy, too. Every word was just dripping with anger. The letters he wrote about Stan stealing Spider-Man, and how he refused any money from his creations unless they paid him from years back, starting with a (from what I've heard) wooden Spider-Man toy made in the 60's.
Who was this lunatic?
I got older. Ditko's self published work (via Robin Snyder) would pass through my hands for many years to come. And there was always a morbid curiosity to see how the old man would rail against "The Man" and his ilk. I remember Jim Hanley himself telling me that Steve, "...was in the phone book." Sure enough, there he was. Easy to find, and right up the block (metaphorically speaking; probably a mile or two away). Whenever a Ditko comic would pass my way, I would always revert to my childhood; "When is he going to do a superhero story?" Slowly, I started to hear, "Y'know, Ditko created that character."
- Doctor Strange
- Blue Beetle
- The Question
- Hawk and Dove
- Shade the Changing Man
- The Creeper
And so many more! "Wait. I love Blue Beetle. I love the Question and Hawk and Dove. This loon created them?" Yeppers.
Around this time, I started to make my own comics. When you're "just the writer" you have to rely on an artist to get your vision out there, and that's where I found myself. Relying on artists to present my work.
I got it.
I understood the rants in his comics. I understood the idea of co-creation. I understood Steve's side intimately. And then I looked at the shelf where his books were. One or two issues a year, mailed by Robin, and we had them all. I remember a customer saying that he couldn't find one or two of them anywhere, and he didn't know there was a new one (don't quote me on this, but I think that was Grant Morrison).
Steve Ditko was a hero.
He was principled and stubborn and he stuck by his guns. He wasn't crazy; he was driven. He did see things as black and white (like Mr. A) and he had an acute sense of justice. I would go on to praise him as "the patron saint of self-publishers" because here he was, closing in on 90 years old, and he was STILL drawing comics, STILL publishing them, and STILL inspired to say something.
He will be missed.