While Steve Ditko worked on a bunch of other DC titles in the Seventies, the two best were unquestionably Shade the Changing Man and Stalker. The former was a great fantasy creation that found Ditko back in Doctor Strange territory with a hero who traveled between dimensions. This title, which only ran eight issues (with a ninth fully drawn and later included in a Ditko omnibus), reworked some great tropes from sci-fi novels and superhero comics.

The dialogue was written by Michael Fleisher (he of the memorable Spectre comics and Harlan Ellison/Comics Journal lawsuit). Shade included a number of truly mind-warping plot elements like the “color coma” — in which our hero changed color in every panel. [Shade, the Changing Man, no. 7, June-July 1978]

The last mind-blowing Ditko run on a mainstream title was on Stalker, written by Paul Levitz and inked by the inimitable Wally Wood — who worked with Ditko quite often — ah, to have been a fly on the wall for those conversations!). The comic was pure fantasy with a strong dash of supernatural horror. There were only four issues of the title, but every page reflected the incredible amount of talent working on it.

Splash page for Stalker #3.
In between his last interview (for the fanzine Marvel Main in 1968) and the essays he wrote for his later self-published work, Ditko went “on the record” only once about his work. In Issue 93 of  Creepy (of all things) he complained about the editors at DC who, in his estimation, doomed Shade. “I never wanted Shade to be just another costumed superhero. I’d have done it differently, but they (DC) want to stay with the same old stuff.” [cited in Florez, p. 286] 

Panels from Shade #3
Shade might have been too far-out for mass consumption – when it was brought back years later by the Vertigo brand at DC with writer Peter Milligan at the helm, it became a more existential “trip” comic (that was also wonderful). The DC titles on which he had no writing or plotting input — namely, Starman and The Legion of Superheroes — are fully entertaining books. (Fortunately, they have been collected in hardback in the second Ditko “Omnibus” from DC; Marvel has yet to gather his later work between covers, so this reviewer has never read his runs on ROM and Speedball.)

It’s interesting to consider that Ditko’s finest work faced opposition at both Marvel and DC, but when he was free to do what he wanted, he didn’t do Dr. Strange or Shade — instead he did the Question (which was also revived by DC, with great scripts by former Ditko collaborator and philosophical “nemesis” Denny O’Neil) and Mr. A (on the better end of the self-published spectrum; see more below). 

The Avenging World was another Ditko cri de coeur. It began in witzend in 1969, was collected into an independent comic in 1973, and became a full self-published trade paperback in 2002. The piece is narrated by a globe wearing a bandage, lamenting about the crises in the world.

The comic was the first of Ditko’s blatantly preachy works, very much akin to the work of Jack Chick tracts. Visually, the piece was fascinating: newspaper headlines, drawings, crazy overstuffed paragraphs of ranting text, all mixed with Ditko’s illustrations. Philosophically, the comic was pure propaganda — his black-and-white self-centric Randian world view was spelled out (and spelled out, and spelled out). It is so overwrought that it frequently wanders into “so arch it’s funny” territory.

But that kind of thing is what Ditko really wanted to do in the comic book medium. The problem was that he was so adamant about not compromising (would Howard Roark or John Galt compromise?) that he would usually end up clashing with his editors at the “Big Two” (and even at the indie companies) as he looked for work in his 40s, 50s, and 60s.

The Plato/Aristotle argument he had with Jim Shooter (mentioned in the first part of this piece) is only one of many stories in which Ditko had complaints about a job that were related strictly to the philosophy behind the basic concept. Strange and Stranger: the World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell [Fantagraphics, 2008] catalogues these occurrences, and they range from the ridiculously petty (Ditko demanding the phrase “ex-criminal” be removed from The Question because no criminal can ever be rehabilitated) to amazing incidences of discharging a gunshot into one’s pedal extremity (turning down work because it featured a supernatural lead character — this after decades of drawing horror comics).

As noted above, Ditko got work not only from his older comrades (oops, no comrades for Objectivists!) like Dick Giordano, but he also got plum assignments from younger artists and editors who were big fans. The Bell book includes quotes from Frank Miller who, as one of the hottest artists in the field, could’ve given Ditko a major influx of cash with a proposed collaboration on a Mr. A comic, but Ditko proved unwilling to commit.

Ditko’s work-for-hire during the Eighties included WWF tie-in comics, the aforementioned Chuck Norris comic, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and a few blatant merchandise comics (Transformers, Gobots, the Big Boy restaurant chain).

From DC's The Unexpected, #221, 1982.
There are several indelible images in the Bell book. The first involves inker-publisher Greg Theakston, who inked Ditko’s work and visited his tiny studio in the northern part of Times Square. [pp. 167-68] While there, he saw a Comics Code stamp on Ditko’s cutting board and wondered what it was. It seems Ditko needed some paper to mend his cutting board and happened to be using original art from his Marvel stash. (Theakston noted that this was a page from a 1956 Journey into Mystery.)

This was the result of Ditko having received some of his original art back from Marvel. The fracas over Kirby’s work – which Ditko did not support, for personal reasons he outlined in an essay that is hard to parse (aside from that fact that Ditko was once again playing the contrarian role and not taking the position one would’ve assumed he would have) resulted in Marvel sending its artists *some* of their original pages.

Ditko showed Theakston an 18-inch stack of his original Marvel art. Ditko was systematically using the stack, presumably, as scrap paper. Ditko would never have dreamt of selling any of it — his dogmatic beliefs demanded he not earn money off of past work.

The saddest note in Bell’s bio is struck when we read that in 1983 the great Marie Severin “discovered the conditions under which he was living and led him to the licensing division of Marvel….” “ ‘Marie said he was in dire financial straits,’ says Ron Fontes (the Production Supervisor for Marvel Special Projects and Marvel Books, a short-lived children’s book division devoted to non-comic-book projects and licensed publications)… ‘He absolutely refused to have anything to do with the comic-book department, but we were different. I hired him to draw a Transformers coloring book.’ ” [p. 149]

The counter to those stories can be found in a Nov. 15, 2016, piece on the New York mag Vulture blog. In the article, writer Abraham Riesman waits outside Ditko’s office to talk to him and encounters the other folks in adjacent offices. One woman has a fascinating story:

“ ‘One time, about ten years ago, I accidentally got a piece of his mail,’ she said, her eyebrows rising scandalously. ‘I opened it and then realized it wasn’t mine because that check had too many zeroes.’ My body jerked up with shock — that contradicted Ditko’s claim that he doesn’t get a cut. I asked for more details. She said it was from a movie studio, and that when she gave it back to him, he just took it and said nothing. ‘That’s probably why he can work in that little office,’ she said, and laughed. ‘He’s doing all right.’”

This check could’ve been the result of Ditko finally agreeing to accept money from Marvel for Spider-Man or Dr. Strange, or it could well have been from DC for their continued use of the characters he created for them (the Creeper has appeared in different Batman and Justice League TV cartoons).

A roughly sketched page from
a later self-published comic (where Ditko
was the only one inking, so un-drawn characters
remained un-drawn....).
The last bit of self-destructiveness is very fascinating: in Strange and Stranger it is noted that the pencils Ditko gave in for his works for hire were so preliminary in some cases that they were barely there. The inkers had to create characters and objects Ditko had left as a line or two. Younger Ditko fans like P. Craig Russell were happy to do this; an old pro like Joe Sinnott sent the pencils back and refused to do the extra work. [Bell, p. 152]

There was one surprise success in Ditko’s later mainstream output — but the title only became a hit after Ditko did the initial installment as penciler (he’s credited as writer, but that has been disproved). The comic was Marvel Super-Heroes, Vol. 2, No. 8 (Winter ’91), and the new character was a teenage girl who wanted to be Iron Man’s sidekick, a goofy-looking, diamond-eyed heroine named Squirrel Girl.

The single adventure Ditko drew was tucked away in that anthology series, but Squirrel Girl remained a kind of running joke at Marvel, until the point that she was revived in 2005 for The Great Lakes Avengers, and then she got her own title in 2014. Ditko drew her in a loose way, making her look a bit like the young Carol Burnett; subsequent artists have made her look like a more realistic teen (albeit with a tail).

When the work for hire work dried up in the Nineties, he turned to self-publishing with his friend Robin Snyder. The Ditko-Snyder books are extremely varied in quality — in each issue, there is a comic or two that combined the totally gonzo spirit of the underground comics (albeit with stricter moral lessons) and Ditko’s best “trip” comics. The same issue would usually contain at least a comic or two (or four or five, in case of the one-page rants) that was overly preachy and had the odd plotting and moral certainty (and wildly flat dialogue) of a Chick tract.

There were certain things common in the latter comics. The first was the aforementioned “lectures” delivered by characters, all of which centered around the Randian/Aristotelian principle that “A is A.” There is only black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, in the world, and those who trod a middle path (or even believed in the existence of relative morality) are not only wrong but dangerous in their philosophy.

The other common element was a character — be it a villain or a greedy comic book fan — breaking down and crying out “It’s not fair!” as they demanded their share of something they had no part in creating. Ditko’s beliefs lead him to decry accommodations for any individuals — no welfare, and most certainly no charity for those who have less in life.

The strangest element of Ditko’s self-published work, which was all written by him (with the exception of the reprints included in certain issues, which all came from comics that are in the public domain) is the odd and frequent use of two words meaning the same thing used in rapid succession. It’s a strange usage that Ditko did a lot in his writing and even in his speaking (as in one of his fanzine interviews). His heroes would thus (my approximation of Ditko-speak) need, want to find, discover what kind of horrible, miserable crook could commit, pull off such a wretched, horrid crime, illegal act.

This made for a very odd-sounding type of English, which was, for the most part, an alien-sounding code in the self-published work. Ditko also broke down sentences to the bare essence, as if the person speaking was dying in the desert all the time. Thus, “I need to go home, I can figure it out there” would be something like “Need home, figure it there…” As I noted in the first part about Ditko’s spoken accent, it’s almost as if Ditko was trying to “blow up” the language by reducing it to its bare essentials. Given that he was working on very standard genre-type plots, the effect was particularly weird.

From Ditko, Act 7, self-published in 2011.
The stories in his self-published work are remarkably similar — he’d set up a locale for the crime, situate the time period (usually the 1930s) and then act out a crime spree that is interrupted by a hero who exists as a function of whatever design he created for the character. This leads back to the best part of these comics, which I will be addressing below (namely, how damned inventive the illustrations are). But first I must address the last way in which Ditko manifested his plot logic and “orderly” sensibility in his layouts.

A great six-panel page.
The standard readable comic book page has three rows of two panels each, making six panels. Kirby and some of the later innovators (Steranko, Neil Adams) broke this notion for good with panels that “went with the action.” In the case of those artists, the most conventionally designed pages were relegated to those that featured dialogue explaining the plot. When Ditko was working at the “Big Two” companies he favored three rows of three panels, since he could fit more plot into that design (Ditko’s Spider-Man and especially Dr. Strange tales have an incredible amount of plot for their length).

The best part about such rigid layouts is when Ditko would break out of that “grid” and finally deliver a full-page illustration of action. That is what reading comics is all about: turning the page and seeing the action "blow up" in front of you in a action-packed single-panel page. However, Ditko seemed to work under constraints he created himself (in many, many ways), so he began drawing 12-panel pages, and then pretty much unreadable 20-panel pages (if he could design them even more "intimately" he'd try to fit in 24-25 panels).

For example, above is a page from a 1989 adventure of his hero “the Mocker” (a guy in a crazy suit who haunted his crooks). This was during the period from the early Seventies through the late Eighties when Ditko truly went word-crazy (thankfully this stopped as he got heavily into self-publishing with Snyder) and he would cram a graphic-novel’s worth of plot into a 8- or 10-page featurette. Thus, the panels don’t really “blow up” in the manner of a Marvel or DC comic, and the reader in fact is swamped with words.
"J Series: A View of Justice," 1973

The Bell bio includes in its litany of Ditko-getting-angry-at-editors-for-doing-their-jobs stories an infamous run-in with Dean Mullaney of Eclipse Comics, who noted that Ditko had overwhelmed his panels with words and he needed Ditko to cut down some of the unnecessary dialogue so there would be more space for the art. This caused Ditko to leave Eclipse and most likely reinforced once more his image of editors as fascist figures who wanted to limit the freedom of the artist (and yet, oddly, Ditko would do the aforementioned works for hire, about which he didn’t care at all, so editors could go to town on them).

“The Mocker” was intended for a magazine that never materialized, but even if the pages were printed in a larger-sized publication (they wound up being collected in a self-published standard-size comic) you’d still have a magazine page with 20 “thumbnail” illustrations. That’s fine if you’re featuring the “slivers” common to Steranko and Miller’s work (their cinematic way to create tension and link disparate spaces).

The barely readable humorous comic "Heads"
But Ditko’s twenty panels are crammed with words, words, and more words — and often words that are the abbreviated language mentioned above. This makes these comics the most physically unreadable works he ever did; a true-blue fan of Ditko will read them (magnifying glass in hand, as one *must* have when reading Dave Sim and Chris Ware as well) but it’s a physically unpleasant experience. Thankfully, his “verbophilia” ended as the Nineties came in sight.
A one-pager from 1999.

And one last thing about the self-published work: It had numerous one-page comics that seemed like Ditko was getting on a soap box to air a petty grievance. Thus, he would go to the movies and perhaps not like the service he got from a disinterested counter-person (usually a teen who doesn't really want the job but needs money of some kind).

The master artist would take some mental notes about the bad service he received and come back to his studio to crank out a one-page comic bashing whoever had wasted his time by not absolutely loving their job. At these moments the Chick-ishness comes to the foreground, and the strips produced are so old-man cranky that they're amusing for the wrong reason.

One of Ditko's best latter-day creations: Static
The art in the self-published comics, however, is fascinating. Some of it has a *very* half-finished quality to it, but there are a few pages in nearly every issue that continue the visual experimentation he began in his Charlton horror shorts in the Fifties and brought to total fruition in his best work for Marvel, Warren, and DC.

Because of its inherently sketch-like nature, the self-published work laid bare Ditko’s techniques for conveying shadow, tension, and movement. The losers that inhabit the film noir universe didn’t jibe with his philosophy, so they are not present in his comics. Instead, we witness a world that is filled with the very good and the extremely bad; this is literally represented most often with a character being covered with shadow or the coiled circles that Ditko drew to indicate unnamed “energies.”

A wild page from "The Cape," 2011.
His hardboiled comics presented fragmented bits of crime and a good deal of punishment. The art was indeed so primitive in certain ways – one is reminded of Neil Gaiman putting Ditko in the category of “outsider artists” — that many characters are abstracted to the point that they are merely lines, cross-hatching, or revolving dots, usually mouthing what for the artist was the whiniest of whiny justifications: “It isn’t fair!”

The worlds these characters inhabited were of two kinds: an urban setting (again, most often specified as being in the 1930s) or a Dr. Strange-like cosmos where the backgrounds are white and some characters are fast-moving abstractions.

The self-published work is not to everyone’s taste, but it can be addictive for certain readers. In the documentary linked to below, Neil Gaiman does indeed liken Ditko’s personal work to outsider art. He’s not wrong — there is an aspect of preachiness that seems at times to completely conflict with the action-hero genre, to the extent that one can feel like they’re reading a simplified guide to Objectivism, meant for comic book-loving kids and teens.

Another amazing splash page
from a self-published comic
(2001 publication of a comic drawn
in 1988).
On the other hand, though, the self-published comics also represent the work of a comic book master continuing to create in his 70s and 80s, which is always fascinating. Although by all accounts, he was the straightest arrow there ever was, Ditko continued to be extremely “trippy” in his art until the very end. So, while Spider-Man is considered his primary legacy, Dr. Strange and Shade ended up being the prototype for the best, most experimental work he ever did. For a man who avoided celebrity like the plague, he cast a very large shadow and will continue to do so in the decades to come.

Since Ditko kept to his policy of not granting interviews or publicly speaking about his work after 1968, this BBC documentary written and hosted by Jonathan Ross has become essential viewing for all Ditko fans and those who are even moderately interested in the strange legacy of the “Marvel method” in comic-book creation.