Legendary and reclusive comic artist Steve Ditko — who with Stan Lee co-created iconic Marvel heroes including Spider-Man and Doctor Strange — has died, the Associated Press confirms. He was 90.
The New York Police Department say he was found in his Manhattan studio apartment on June 29; it is believed he died about two days earlier.
Ditko’s most enduring characters were created during his tenure at Marvel Comics, where he worked alongside editor-in-chief Lee to develop the look of Spider-Man in 1961. Jack Kirby had previously taken a swing at the webslinger, but Lee was unconvinced by that artist’s interpretation of the now-iconic character.
When Spider-Man — whose red-and-blue costume, Spidey senses, and web-shooters all came directly from Ditko — first appeared within the pages of Amazing Fantasy No. 15, the friendly neighborhood superhero proved a surprisingly massive hit for Marvel Comics, paving the way for a solo comic series titled The Amazing Spider-Man.
Ditko’s influence on Spider-Man was tremendous, his often dark sensibilities informing an at-the-time rare superhero whose life was often worsened and trauma-filled as a consequence of his good deeds.
The artist additionally helped conceive many of the most memorable members of Spidey’s rogues’ gallery, including Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Vulture, and the Lizard. As that sampling might suggest, Ditko’s art has been a primary influence on the Spider-Man films, which have altogether grossed around $5 billion at the global box-office.
Two years later, Ditko delivered another Marvel icon by creating Doctor Strange, the mystical Sorcerer Supreme who furthered the comic book empire’s reach into more cosmic, even psychedelic realms. A visceral and often strikingly surreal artist, Ditko found in Strange a perfect opportunity to detail Escher-esque tableaus of twisting bodies and swirling, almost irradiated cosmos. Strange first appeared in Strange Tales No. 110 and Ditko continued to work on those comics through the next 36 issues, until July of 1966.
“Ditko’s artwork was very psychedelic, very ‘60s, and that was the counter-culture making its way into the Marvel Universe,” Scott Derrickson told EW in 2016, as his Doctor Strange movie for Marvel was hitting theaters. The director said Ditko’s panels were a huge influence on the film.
“I felt very strongly that art was still progressive and had not been imitated,” he said, “I don’t think visual effects were ready to try and imitate him, but VFX finally caught up with Steve Ditko.”
Soon after Doctor Strange began appearing in Marvel Comics, though, a mysterious rift widened between Lee and Ditko, leading to his departure from Marvel Comics; the two had not been on speaking terms for some time, art and editorial changes being mediated through middle-men. Neither side ever proffered a public explanation, though Spider-Man successor artist John Romita said in a 2010 deposition that the two disagreed on “almost everything,” from social issues to character arcs. While Ditko never explained his side, Lee claimed he didn’t know what had led to the parting of ways.
Ditko would return to the Marvel fold over a decade later, in 1979, to work on Machine Man and the Micronauts. As a freelancer, he continued contributing to Marvel and created cult-favorite character Squirrel Girl for them in 1992.
After his initial departure, however, he found work at other publishers including Charlton (where early in his career he’d been creating Z-grade sci-fi/horror and crime series) and DC Comics. Post-Marvel, he worked on Charlton characters like the Blue Beetle, the Question, and Captain Atom (whom he’d co-created there back in 1960). By 1983, though, those characters — along with most of Charlton’s superhero stable — had been acquired by DC Comics.
With the help of smaller presses, Ditko created Mr. A in 1967. The character heavily indulged Ditko’s fascination with Randian philosophy, of which he’d been an ardent believer since around 1960, when Lee had introduced him to her work, the editor-in-chief enjoying her more fantastical characters. Ditko, by multiple accounts, had quickly become a more full-throated supporter of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy of self-reliance; and her writings proved a prominent influence on many of his comic-book projects.
Unlike Lee, Ditko stayed out of the spotlight and enjoyed something of a reputation as the “J.D. Salinger of comics,” turning down almost all interview requests from the 1970s onward, even as his most famous creations began to birth box-office behemoths in the early 2000s.
Ditko was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1927, to a father who worked in a steel mill and a mother who was a homemaker. His interest in comics has been traced to his father, who loved Prince Valiant, and from superheroes who were becoming popular in Ditko’s teenage years, like Batman and The Spirit.
After high school, he served in the Army in post-war Germany. A move to New York City after he was discharged brought Ditko into the orbit of Batman artist Jerry Robinson, who taught him at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. He was working in comics by 1953, at the studio of Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. He later began drawing for Atlas Comics, the publishing label that would evolve into Marvel Comics, and began his fateful collaborations with Lee.
Ditko has no known survivors, and he’s not believed to have married.
Ditko’s influence has reached far and wide, and many of his fans shared tributes on social media following news of his death, including Derrickson, Neil Gaiman, Edgar Wright, Deadpool creator Robert Liefeld, and more. See a sampling of reactions below.