In the glorious celebration that is Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, we experience artist-writer Ditko’s thrill at co-creating Spider-Man with his pal Stan Lee, his gratitude for being a beloved multimillionaire, and — oh, wait. That’s probably the story Bell wanted to tell, what he wishes for his subject. Instead, Strange and Stranger relates one of the strangest comic-book tales ever: not just how a talented man was ripped off by others, but how he denied himself a larger place in comics history.
In the early 1960s, The Amazing Spider-Man, created with writer Stan Lee, became a hit for Marvel Comics and established Ditko’s novel drawing style: expressive, shoebox-shaped faces; long, tapered fingers with meticulously penciled knuckles; rubbery arms and legs. These visual tics gave Spider-Man a distinctive look. Where other superheroes were chunks of muscle, Spidey was an elegantly elastic figure. Ditko followed up Spider-Man with the psychedelic Dr. Strange and other books, but also became immersed in novelist Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. This caused problems. Ditko took Rand’s call for fierce independence to an extreme, insisting on creating characters who spouted objectivist dogma, which led to fallings-out with both Marvel and DC Comics, the biggest companies in the medium. In recent years, he could have made money selling his original art, but some Rand-ian principle holds him back from doing so. Bell also points out that Marvel never paid Ditko very much, compared with all the profits he generated for the company, and that Lee early on claimed sole credit for writing Spider-Man.
It’s a sad irony that most (post-movie) Spider-Man fans probably don’t realize anyone but Lee was responsible for conceiving the hero — or that this unheralded co-creator is a still-active 80-year-old in Manhattan. Strange and Stranger is beautifully designed, a coffee-table bio filled with Ditko’s artwork, and Bell has interviewed many of the industry figures who both employed and tussled with this strikingly original, stubborn comics legend. A-